The Data Revolution by Rob Kitchin

One of the jobs I have at the moment is based in a university department that focuses on the sociology, anthropology and political economy of medical science and health technologies. We have a reading group, every fortnight or so, and usually we read established STS (science and technology studies) journal articles in light of contemporary challenges and political economy, or new, controversial texts from the field’s leading lights. Over Christmas, however, we chose to read Kitchin’s The Data Revolution, already a classic in data studies, though it was only published in 2014.

I first came across Kitchin’s work a few years ago, while working in data policy and advocacy at a patient representative organization, and then – when I was very new to the world of data and digital infrastructures – it served as an excellent, introductory guide to the promises and pitfalls of our brave new all-seeing, all-surveiling, all-innovating world. And that is Kitchin’s primary aim in the text: to offer a nuanced, impartial overview of concepts, frameworks and paradigms through which to understand big data, open data and their infrastructures.

Returning to the text now, ever-so-slightly the wiser about the issues Kitchin discusses, the book acts much like literature on formulating a research question or introductory statistics; worth revisiting for the reminder of the foundations on which some of your thinking is, could, or should be built. It strips down the language and terminology so freely thrown about and confused by not only policy wonks, politicians and media pundits, but also technology scholars and technologists. Careful definitions are carved out from the dialect of the data geeks – though this seems, at times, a little forced and rigid.

As with every book that attempts to do the impossible – to provide a ‘neutral’ version of events – the text has some flaws that are glaring in light of events and debates that have happened in the years since its publication. Crucially, the text makes assumptions about how value is created in data and digital infrastructures. Labour is alleged to be given ‘for free’ by internet users and hackers and whoever else interacts with digital infrastructures – that is to say, all of us. The saturated debate around labour theories of value and ‘digital labour’ already feel old, but of course the most well known contributions to the topic (Srnicek, Fuchs, Dewart McEwan etc.) are in fact not, at all. Discussions on the topic were in their primacy, relatively, when Kitchin wrote The Data Revolution. I would suggest that a future edition could dedicate an entire chapter to labour and value creation in data.

One final thing I found pleasantly surprising was Kitchin’s handling of the issues around open data, which in my experience too often remain under the rug at conferences, workshops and policy discussions on the uses and abuses of data. In the four/five years since I first read the book and became interested in the issues it raises, I have encountered Kitchin’s wider work as an open data advocate, promoting greater access to both government- and business-sector data. Though his position has by no means remained uncompromising in that time, I nonetheless expected that in 2014 – when the open data movement in the UK and Ireland was truly alive and kicking – his overview of open data might be anything but balanced. I was wrong. He dedicated entire sections to business enclosure of government-sector data (though it was not couched in those terms), frequently citing one of my favourite scholars on the political economy of data, Dr Jo Bates, as well as of privacy and ethical concerns around increasing access to government data. I would have liked more discussion on data ownership and democratization of digital infrastructures, but overall it was a good read.

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