Counter-mapping COVID: grassroots visualizations of data on the margins

Jeppesen, Sandra | $36,500

Ontario Lakehead University 2021 SSHRC

Governments have long used data mapping to understand how phenomena are geographically distributed, including to track the location and size of outbreaks during health crises. Today, with iconic COVID‑19 maps proliferating, governments may use maps to support political and economic interests. Grassroots activists have also tapped into the benefits of digitally facilitated mapping, attempting to mitigate biases and data gaps reproduced in official COVID‑19 maps. Data maps by grassroots activists offer crucial insight into the politics of big data, as they reframe narratives of pandemic impacts on specific overlooked areas and groups (Kent 2020).

Three key objectives of this project are to trace data imaginaries of COVID‑19 counter-data mapping projects from (1) conception by communities, through (2) production and posting on data justice websites, to (3) reception in communities of social media users who interpret and comment on the maps. A fourth objective is to create an interactive counter-data meta-mapping platform, pinpointing data-mapping projects to visualize global networks of counter-data mapping actions and network counter-map producers together. A fifth objective is to develop a Data Justice Hub at Lakehead University as part of an innovative research-activism collaboration with global participants.

To achieve these objectives, this program of research will examine global Covid-19 pandemic data visualizations by civil society data mapping groups in key international sites. It will critically analyze how big data analytics are used by intersectional data activists to track, visualize, and appropriate data to construct a more accurate view of social values and realities on the margins. Having a better understanding of grassroots practices of counter-data mapping will support grassroots organizations, social movements, and non-profits in the preparation of data policy recommendations. Knowledge will be mobilized targeting specific publics: publication of peer-reviewed scholarly journal articles; dissemination in popular media with the objective of increasing critical literacies in data-map reading and production; presentation of findings to policy-makers to inform future pandemic data map communication policies and strategies, focusing on equitable outcomes for marginalized groups; and finally, knowledge exchange workshops in collaboration with data activists to improve community outcomes through sharing practices to enhance counter-data-mapping practices.

Research outcomes will contribute to existing knowledge on counter-data mapping in four specific ways. First, generating knowledge on data mapping in marginalized communities will allow for a deeper understanding of big data gaps. Second, applying intersectionality theory as a framework to better understand data activism will reveal intersectional effects, impacts and mitigation practices with regard to these data gaps. Third, broadening the scope from technological aspects of data activism, we include empirical interviews and digital ethnographies of the websites of data activist collectives to understand the data imaginaries and social realities constructed by counter-data maps. Fourth, the development of an interactive meta-map platform for pinpointing maps produced by data activists involved in counter-mapping will create data activist networks, brokering knowledge exchange among global data activists themselves.

This project will positively impact the lives of marginalized communities through research participation, knowledge transfer and exchange, and the development of participatory interactive counter-data mapping practices, improving community data discourses, imaginaries and futures.

With funding from the Government of Canada

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