Thursday 2 February 2017

Introduction to the special issue on Environmental Data

By Jennifer Gabrys

Big Data research often focuses on particular datasets and types of data. From analysing data from the Twitter ‘Firehose’ to scraping data from websites, the practices of Big Data typically engage with social media, extended databases, and any number of data infrastructures about individual online activity. Environmental data, on the other hand, presents a somewhat different set of dynamics for considering how these long-standing and already considerably sized datasets are now becoming even bigger and more pervasive.

Environmental data is generated through a wide range of technologies and practices, from satellites to sensors and from sustainability reporting to eco tweets. The special issue, ‘Practicing, Materializing and Contesting Environmental Data’, addresses the specific ways in which environmental data is now amassing in multiple ways, while also discussing the implications of these new forms of data for addressing environmental problems.

Contributions to the special issue include articles on the situated and material engagements with environmental data. Emma Garnett analyses air quality modelling practices and the specific ways in which data is stabilised through affective attachments to data. Yanni Loukissas draws attention to the overlooked place attachments that characterise datasets at the Arnold Arboretum. Ingmar Lippert suggests that data gathered for corporate sustainability reporting can often counteract the very objectives of achieving sustainability that this data is meant to enable. And Tahani Nadim also takes a critical view when discussing how earth observation satellites work through a seemingly comprehensive, yet distanced, view of environments and environmental problems.

Additional contributions to the special issue especially focus on the ways in which contestations expressed through environmental data can generate new political possibilities. Brooke Singer accounts for her data-related environmental art practices, and the ways in which different forms of political engagement emerge through these practices. Kim Fortun et al. consider the role that critical data designers play in shaping environmental data and data repositories, and the strategies these designers adopt in order to facilitate public encounters with government datasets. And Jennifer Gabrys et al. discuss how air pollution data gathered through citizen sensing practices and technologies can shift the forms of evidence that are accounted for when dealing with the effects of the fracking industry. Data stories, as Gabrys et al. suggest, can present a way not just to contest official accounts made with environmental data, but also to figure new data worlds.

This special issue makes the case for attending to these multiple forms of environmental data within wider discussions of Big Data. Many of these practices shift the usual subjects and relations that might characterise Big Data, while also demonstrating different material arrangements of data. At the same, the contestations that unfold with and through environmental data can at once reveal the particular contours of environmental problems, while also suggesting new forms of engagement and political possibility.

The ‘Environmental Data’ special issue, including full text of papers in the issue, can be accessed at