A personal take on ‘data from the margins’ during COVID-19 pandemic

by Asli Telli

I have been caught in the whirlpool of infodemic like many of you for quite a long while; especially during the first stage of what has been varying degrees of lockdown in our small planet. I refer to the Earth as small since the past several months have also been a crash course for erasing borders and reconstructing new ones. In the midst of all that mess, I had a book contract, signed in February; sort of a special gift from outer galaxies with no sign of pan/infodemic(!) Oh, well; a woman’s gotta do what a woman’s gotta do.

I must admit that I’ve also got lucky at times. One of these occasions has been that of getting to know Deborah Lupton with her amazing solidarity initiative, putting a source document together, entitled ‘Doing Fieldwork in a Pandemic’. She held community calls with colleagues working in diverse fields, but with intersecting interests, eager to crowdsource such content, right when it is urgently sought. I attended two of her community calls and got inspired to carry on with my book drafting every day; no matter what the consequences were and or that I could jot down only a short paragraph or two each day. This sharing community also pointed me towards the Overseas Development Institute which supervised Key Workers visualization project with utmost elegance: Migrants’ contribution to the Covid-19 response has since then, become one of my case studies in the book I’m drafting on Issue Mapping. This visual sourcebook of storytelling is worth exploring with its calm interface, accompanied by sharp, affective content. For me, a symbol of what I’m living through as a knowledge worker, house worker, mother and issue-dweller; all compressed within a-rainbow-coloured-corona-shaped-hat since last March. Sort of living a parody for real, isn’t it?

So who is actually on the frontline? Who stays at home? Who can not afford staying away from work? It has been a couple of years since redefined margins begandeconstructing my view of equity and social justice. Now we come to define justice through data, even through design and algorithms; in an attempt to dismantle structural inequality among livelihoods. Just as I always have, my knee-jerk reaction was to look for bottom-up initiatives until I discovered the article, entitled, The Rise of the Data Poor: The COVID-19 Pandemic Seen From the Margins, by Milan and Treré. The essay is significant with its positive stance on how even during the pandemic, the disempowered manage to create innovative forms of solidarity from below, partially compensating their invisibility. This is not to exclude the widening data gaps, of course. These gaps exist in the economic and digital realms for a long time.   

Another significant factor the essay focuses on is ‘numbers as narrative’. Writers underline that for many of the marginalized communities in the Global South, this numerical narrative is absent; thus the affect of risk is inexistent. Firstly, who is represented by the data collected; secondly, the subjectivization of who collects from whom, both cause divide and inequality. Furthermore, lack of reliable numbers could mean, no data=no problem; another form of data poverty with socio-economic and historical grounding. What counters this long-lasting debate is interesting and holds promise for what is soon to come: At the nexus of Global North and South, creation of mutual aid groups, strike actions, and solidarity networks through bottom-up mobilization, all have given us hope. New repertoires of action adapted the business-as-usual–back-to-routine model and replanted online versions of physical events; such repertoires include unions, art collectives as well as cultural gatherings.

In another light, the world has not seen so much dissent in so many different spots before. While the #DemocratizeWork and #BlackLivesMatter movements have been agenda shapers in their own realm, action against gender-based violence also grew due to the forced conditions of the pandemic. In this sense, data display and exposure in its exponential forms forces us to reflect retrospectively. There is no future of the past; what bluntly exists with all its significance is TODAY. Staying at present has long been the motto of cognitive behavioural therapy experts while the latest health crisis rids us of emotion for the privilege of numerical data.

I dare say the distribution of pandemic-related data via open and transparent community channels is key in our true awakening and survival. In other words, it is not a matter of who produces the effective vaccine, but more so, the knowledge pool that hosts all related data, networks and relationships to sustain the well-being of livelihoods. In that sense, ‘data from the margins’ has become the determinant factor that fills the ever-remaining exclusionary gap. The exclusionary gap has, this time, turned into risk factor: “No one is alone in this game…”

Allow me to make a last attempt here for a list of shifts in critical-data research before, during and possibly beyond the pandemic:  

  1. We have never been so uncertain. At the first stage of the crisis, given the pile of raw data produced from all directions on a focused phenomenon, we did not know where to look for the critical, consistent analysis that could provide insight for our work and/or life.
  2. Now that this creepy, uncertain period has shortly passed, the research communities are well aware of the fact that it is indispensable to work in interdisciplinary fashion, with an intersecting vision for the Global North and South.
  3. Diverse vulnerabilities are involved for breaking through the malaise of our times; i.e. fake truth or right populisms at large. It is time critical data researchers rediscover data from the margins, make responsible use of this transitional bottom-up scheme and invite new open-source tools and methods, arising from grassroots communities. The potential for transforming structural inequalities is there to welcome.

Feel free to revise and add to this humble list. I hope the images below help with the inspiration. 🙂

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