Agile Ethics for Massified Research and Visualization

by Timothy Webmoor

While at InSIS I worked upon two case studies as part of the Oxford eSocial Science project. The first case study was an ethnography of a very successful computer lab in London. They have been creating middle-ware programmes for hosting visualisations online. These visualisations render academic, publicly available or crowd-sourced information in an interactive format – from the (near) real-time availability of Barclay’s bikes in London to the latest UK census or crime statistics from the Metropolitan Police Service. I explored the tension in the work involving code that must be balanced for the success of such e-research labs. New and innovative types of data are being mashed-up in visualisations, but this creativity is coupled to ad hoc programming on the part of each individual programmer. Rather than focus upon the data, care must be given to ‘code curatorial’ practices to sustain these platforms.

The second case study was a timely study of Twitter. Much discussed and perhaps overly hyped as a means for network mobilisation during recent political upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and here in London (and greater UK) during the past riots, Twitter is emerging as a reservoir for data mining by academics, politicos, the private industry and others. (The Guardian, for example, now employs a team to study Twitter). With a colleague at a lab that harvests the ‘back-end’ of social media platforms, I co-authored a paper on the ethical implications of such research. A bit contentiously, we urge a levelling of ourselves with those we study through making ourselves equally vulnerable to potential data-mining. The paper is now available at Taylor and Francis.


In this paper, the authors examine some of the implications of born-digital research environments by discussing the emergence of data mining and the analysis of social media platforms. With the rise of individual online activity in chat rooms, social networking sites and micro-blogging services, new repositories for social science research have become available in large quantities. Given the changes of scale that accompany such research, both in terms of data mining and the communication of results, the authors term this type of research ‘massified research’. This article argues that while the private and commercial processing of these new massive data sets is far from unproblematic, the use by academic practitioners poses particular challenges with respect to established ethical protocols. These involve reconfigurations of the external relations between researchers and participants, as well as the internal relations that compose the identities of the participant, the researcher and that of the data. Consequently, massified research and its outputs operate in a grey area of undefined conduct with respect to these concerns. The authors work through the specific case study of using Twitter’s public Application Programming Interface for research and visualization. To conclude, this article proposes some potential best practices to extend current procedures and guidelines for such massified research. Most importantly, the authors develop these under the banner of ‘agile ethics’. The authors conclude by making the counterintuitive suggestion that researchers make themselves as vulnerable to potential data mining as the subjects who comprise their data sets: a parity of practice.

Continue reading the full paper at Information, Communication and Society.

Next Future of Cities Distinguished Lecture: Prof. Jennifer Robinson on 8 November 2011

by Idalina Baptista

The Oxford Programme for the Future of Cities, University of Oxford, presents a series of three lectures with distinguished academics whose inspirational work has contributed significantly to our understanding of contemporary cities and societies. The first distinguished lecturer will be Prof Jennifer Robinson from the Department of Geography, University College London:

Cities in a World of Cities: traces of elsewhere in the making of city futures

8 November 2011, 5–6.30pm
Edmond Safra Lecture Theatre
Saïd Business School, University of Oxford

Prof Jennifer Robinson examines what must be considered in the making of city futures. Under conditions of globalisation, city futures are imagined in the context of a wider world of cities: policy making for cities is profoundly internationalised. And in the wake of vast changes where urbanisation is taking place across the globe, scholars must now theorise the contemporary urban condition with reference to a world of diverse cities. Both require new vocabularies and new ways of working with traces of elsewhere as city futures are re-imagined: for policy makers to operate at the complex interface between circulating policies and local political contestations, and for scholars to revitalise and invent comparative and international ways of doing research.

About the speaker
Jennifer RobinsonJennifer Robinson has published widely in urban geography: on the politics of segregation in South African cities (The Power of Apartheid, Butterworth-Heinemann, 1996), on urban development in post-apartheid cities, and, more generally, her book, Ordinary Cities: Between Modernity and Development (Routledge: 2006) established a post-colonial critique of urban studies, arguing for urban theory to draw on the diversity of urban experiences across the globe in developing more general accounts of cities.

This even is free but registration is required. We kindly request you register your interest here.