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Humanities central in development of emerging critical data studies field


Spring 2019 | By Mike Atwell. Photo by Kristin Childres.


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Even in Purdue's Lawson Computer Science Building – home to the first computer science department created in the United States – it is possible to find a link to the liberal arts.

A group of undergraduate and graduate students from a wide variety of disciplines will meet at Lawson in May for a tech workshop with a conscience, hosted by the Center for Science of Information (CSol), a National Science Foundation Science & Technology Center.

The week-long event, titled “Critical Data Viz Workshop: An Introduction to the Ethics and Practice of Data Visualization,” will feature Vetria Bryd, Assistant Professor of Computer Graphics Technology at Purdue Polytechnic Institute, and Kendall Roark, Assistant Professor of Library and Information Science, a courtesy faculty member in anthropology. Aside from learning data visualization processes, already a significant task to undertake in one week’s time, the students will also “develop frameworks for ethical and just data visualization practices.”

The workshop will place students in interdisciplinary teams as well. Madisson Whitman (pictured above), a Ph.D. student in anthropology, participated in CSoI’s data workshop last year. Whitman will return to CSoI this summer to develop an online critical data module.

“American anthropologists are trained to ask multidisciplinary kinds of questions,” said Roark, an applied cultural anthropologist who also has a background in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. “Our four-field training is rooted in the intersection of the social sciences, humanities, and sciences.”

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Assistant Professor of Library Science Kendall Roark
Photo: CLA/Mike Atwell

Before accepting an appointment to Purdue Libraries, Roark worked as a postdoctoral fellow in sciences and social sciences data curation. She described critical data studies as an emerging multi-disciplinary field that has been influenced by and is in dialogue with data science.

“Critical data studies is a label that hasn't been around that long,” Roark said. “It has roots in critical geography and urban environment. That said, it’s been picked up really quickly by a broad group of people who have been doing similar kind of work across disciplines – especially in humanities, social sciences, and information science.

“Here at Purdue, I think that there’s an interest in this, but also it’s coming more from the liberal arts. This includes people like myself who are in information science and library science. We’re drawing on a broader knowledge base; asking questions about bias and thinking about how these technologies may impact daily life.”

Roark cited the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) program as a multidisciplinary space where liberal arts subject matter meshes with that from other fields.

“I did a minor and a certificate in gender and sexuality studies. That has always been part of my multidisciplinary training and research interest. So I draw a lot on feminist technoscience studies, queer and critical race theory as they intersect with information science and anthropology,” Roark said.

Roark is quick to point out that there are lots of spaces across campus where interdisciplinary conversations and projects are happening. For example, Byrd is also a collaborator on Digital Humanities certificate and next year will co-teach a data visualization course with Venetria Patton, professor and head of the School of Interdisciplinary Studies.

Ethics, Society and Policy is one of the domains within Purdue’s Integrative Data Science Initiative. The initiative has the tagline, “Robust interdisciplinary collaboration to harness data for the greater good.” The collaboration between Roark, Whitman, and CSoI is exactly that.

Taking advantage of the interdisciplinary atmosphere created by the initiative, CSoI education director Brent Ladd met Roark late last summer during a “coffee klatch.” The regular event was a venue open to data science research and education project leaders to discuss topics of interest. Whitman also attended.

What happened next might be described as serendipitous, after Whitman – one of Roark’s students – suggested to Ladd a book written by Virginia Eubanks titled Automating Inequality.

“It was all about how these seemingly innocuous mathematical algorithms that come out of computer science and other domains have a lot of societal impacts that maybe are just unintended and get used in ways that actually mitigate against the poor and minorities,” Ladd said. “It really just kind of blew the lid off of it for me because I was like, “Oh my goodness. Wow, what can we do in the Center that might help our students become more aware of these kind of issues?”

This connection between CSoI and the department of anthropology has thus far brought two authors to Purdue for lectures: Safiya Umoja Noble, author of Algorithms of Oppression, and Virginia Eubanks.

“From what I’ve learned from Kendall and Madi, anthropology is kind of this unique field in that the way in which students in anthropology learn about the field is sort of looking in a mirror and turning everything back inward to critique ourselves in a way that a lot of fields don’t do,” Ladd said. “So they use this critical theory perspective to do that.”

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Education Director,
Center for Science of Information, Brent Ladd
Photo: CLA/Mike Atwell

Ladd had been introducing students to broader perspectives on data, information, and knowledge for some time, but from another liberal arts field: philosophy.

Early in the Center’s lifespan, Ladd helped bring philosopher Luciano Floridi to campus.

“Our director, Wojtek Szpankowski, is a real fan of his. Floridi really stepped out a number of years ago and created this field called the philosophy of information. Floridi has been using that same critical theory process found in philosophy to take a deeper look at the other side of information and societal impacts,” Ladd said.

In 2016, CSoI collaborated with Andrew Iliadis, then a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy, to create a free online learning module called “Introduction to Ethics and Philosophy of Information.”

Iliadis, now a Fellow in Digital Media, Data, and Culture, and Faculty of Social Science and Humanities at University of Ontario Institute of Technology, wrote his oft-cited publication An Introduction to Critical Data Studies while at Purdue.

The common thread is that liberal arts – home of anthropology, philosophy, interdisciplinary studies – is central to the emerging process in data science called critical data studies.

Ladd’s own experience from his time as an animal sciences graduate student illustrates the value of exposure to these disciplines in non-humanities fields.

“I grew up on my grandparents’ small farm and I recall asking deeper questions about the soil, animals, water, plants, but it was through the process of taking a series of philosophy classes here at Purdue as a graduate student,” he said. “I took ethics, philosophy of mind, and some other courses that opened up a whole new way of seeing things for me. Ever since then, I’ve been able to incorporate those kind of questions into the projects that I do.”