This post was written by Niels ten Oever and Maxigas Dunajcsik for Global Digital Cultures
On May 14th the IN-SIGHT.it project organized a workshop at the public library (OBA), to invite a larger audience to think about data-flows in the city and the visibility of digital infrastructure. This blog post describes what we learned. The workshop highlighted how the municipality treats digital infrastructure very differently from physical infrastructure. Whereas municipal websites provide dashboards about data gathering, it is hard to get a proper grasp on the routing of data infrastructures. This might be a reason for digital discontent.
The follow-up workshop Data Flows in the City: Whose network?’ to the infrastructure walk was attended by 8 participants that jointly sought to answer the question: “who controls the data flows in the city?” Finding answers was not easy, in part because Internet topology traverses borders, escaping the organising logic of territoriality. It is hard to map particular data flows to “things you can kick” (Parks 2015), whereas these are the very devices that do process those data flows.
The Amsterdam Municipality provides dashboards about data in the city (such as the Sensor Register), along with insights into how it uses data (such as through the Algorithm Register). In contrast, information about the routes data takes, how it is traveling, and where it is going is nowhere to be found. But what about the data traffic in the city? Spoiler alert, This has to do with the fact that such data flows traverse the authority of the municipality, rather than being neatly contained in the geographical area of the city.
Amsterdam is a significant site for data flows on the European level, if only for the continental submarine cables that arrive at IJmuiden nearby. The city hosts many assets in digital infrastructures: numerous telecommunications towers, various data centers, and the AMSIX Internet eXchange Point (one of the biggest in the world). There is even a public WiFi network called PublicRoam. However, as a citizen and a researcher, it is nearly impossible for me to find out how my own data is routed, let alone the routes of data traffic in the whole city. How can we then deliberate about public digital infrastructure, or even demands for network reforms?
While the city is actively encouraging and facilitating interaction with the shaping of physical space, it seems to have a less integrated approach when it comes to digital space. Only when devices, actors, and infrastructure are made more transparent, the roles of the different parts of the network (such as datacentres, content distribution networks, telecommunication networks, and fiber optic cables) can be clarified to create better public information infrastructure policies and politics.
Currently, the infrastructural politics of the municipality is based on the physical use of space. For instance, regulations stipulate that datacentres cannot be one story high, since they would use too much space. Moreover, Internet access is provisioned in the form of public WiFi in particular areas and at libraries, like in the case of the aforementioned PublicRoam system. This does not, however, tell the whole story, nor does it respond to what the citizens of a city need.
Information about data flows is currently held by parties such as Internet Services Provides, telecommunication providers, data centers, and national regulators. If Amsterdam wants to be a city based on digital rights, platforms, applications, and access, then it is necessary to look (and see) beyond the “edges” of the network, where devices rear their heads in the built environment. Amsterdam’s digitization agenda speaks of the necessity for “a reliable infrastructure”, but reliability should mean more than simply providing access to extractive networks: it should mean enabling the data to actively shape it.
Parks, Lisa. 2015. “’Stuff You Can Kick’”: Toward a Theory of Media Infrastructures.” In Between Humanities and the Digital, edited by Patrik Svensson and David Theo Goldberg, 355–73. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. https://direct.mit.edu/books/book/4494/chapter-abstract/192061/Stuff-you-can-Kick-Toward-a-Theory-of-Media?redirectedFrom=fulltext
This event is a collaboration between the UvA, the Amsterdam municipality and the ObA, it was made possible by Global Digital Cultures and IN-SIGHT.it (grant MVI.19.032 as part of the MVI programme).
Niels ten Oever
Niels is a postdoctoral researcher with the ‘Making the hidden visible: Co-designing for public values in standards-making and governance’-project at the Media Studies department at the University of Amsterdam. Next to that, he is a research fellow with the Centre for Internet and Human Rights at the European University Viadrina, non-resident fellow with the Center for Democracy and Technology, affiliated faculty with the Digital Democracy Institute at the Simon Fraser University, and an associated scholar with the Centro de Tecnologia e Sociedade at the Fundação Getúlio Vargas. He also holds the position of Vice-Chair for the Global Internet Governance Academic Network. His research focuses on how norms, such as human rights, get inscribed, resisted, and subverted in the Internet infrastructure through its transnational governance.
Maxigas is a Senior Lecturer in Media & Culture at the Media Department of the University of Amsterdam. Maxigas uses media ethnography and digital methods to explore infrastructural ideologies and the materiality of the digital.