UCL Centre for Digital Humanities


Baseless Data? Developing an ethnographic approach to big data problems

24 May 2017, 5:30 pm–6:30 pm

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UCL Centre for Digital Humanities
Gower Street
United Kingdom

This paper looks at how practices of scientific analysis are being put under strain by the appearance and necessity of working with new kinds of data. Whilst most commentary about big data have focused on the value and ethics of analysing and using transactional consumer data, this paper is concerned with the analytical challenge of another field of 'big' data - that of environmental modelling.

In this paper Dr Hannah Knox will do three things. First she will provide an ethnographic account of the challenges faced by a particular group of climate modellers based at a UK university as they attempt to work with emerging forms of data that promise to bridge a divide between natural processes (sensory data on weather and climate) and social relations (statistical data on poverty, tourism, economy). Second she will suggest that a central challenge faced by these climate modellers (and shared with analysts of 'big' data) is the problem of how to conduct analysis without a controllable baseline for comparison - working with what she calls 'baseless data'. She then turns to ethnography. This is a method which she suggests has long operated with an alternative analytical foundation that does not start with the necessity of a generalisable baseline. Reflexively engaging the analytical commitments of the ethnographic method, she will consider whether an alternative approach to data might be developed out of ethnographic analysis and what kind of knowledge this approach to data would produce. She will finish with a proposition about what data-ethnography, approached not from the analytical starting point of quantitative research but rather from an ethnographic paradigm, might look like.

The seminar will be followed by drinks and informal discussion. Please note registration is required for this free event.


Dr Hannah Knox is a Lecturer in Digital Anthropology and Material Culture at the Department of Anthropology, University College London. She is also editor of "Materializing the Digital" a new book series from Manchester University Press. Hannah's work explores the relationship between technology and the imagination, cultural creativity and material contingency, the politics of transformation and the challenge of rupture, crisis and the new.