Monday, 26 September 2022

Comparing algorithmic platforms through differences

Tseng, Y.-S. (2022). Algorithmic empowerment: A comparative ethnography  of two open-source algorithmic  platforms – Decide Madrid and vTaiwan. Big Data & Society, 9(2).

What can critical algorithms/data studies learn from comparative urbanism? 


In my latest paper, I repurpose the idea of comparative urbanism to offer an alternative epistemology of algorithmic decision-making based on two open-source platforms in Taipei and Madrid. In the book Ordinary Cities, Robinson (2006) develops a cosmopolitan approach for comparing cities across axes of ‘difference’ within/beyond the dichotomy of the Global North/South in order to destabilise the conventionally Anglo-Saxon understanding of urban modernisation and world cities and the Northern reduction of the cultural and social richness of the Southern cities to the improvised counterparts. For Robinson, the ‘incommensurable difference’ (Robinson, 2006, p. 41) between the Global South and North, between the wealthy and poor, ‘needs to be viewed less as a problem to be avoided and more as a productive means for conceptualising contemporary urbanism’ (McFarlane and Robinson, 2010, p. 767; Robinson, 2011). Since then, there has been much discussion on how critical scholars can retheorise the urban by learning from cities in the Global South and East (Robinson, 2011; 2015; McFarlane, 2011).  


As much as urban scholars have charted out grounds for comparing cities that are deemed different in terms of socio-economics and politics (see Robinson, 2015, 2022), critical algorithm/data studies begins to identify needs to go beyond the Northern concept of data universalism as well as the dichotomy of Global North/South (Milan & Treré, 2019). For Milan & Treré (2019, p. 319), it is much needed to undo the ‘cognitive injustice that fails to recognise non-mainstream ways of knowing the world’ in data universalism. Against this backdrop, Yu-Shan’s paper demonstrates how comparative urbanism is helpful to provide new epistemology and theorisation of otherwise unknown algorithmic decision-making for citizen empowerment through differences and similarities of vTaiwan and Decide Madrid platforms.  

Urban comparison offers two methodological tactics to bring the two algorithmic platforms - vTaiwan and Decide Madrid – into a dialogue with the current conceptualisation of algorithmic devices and platforms in human geography and critical algorithmic studies.


Firstly, the genetic comparative tactic allows not to start with the technicality of the two platforms but to trace their shared trajectories. Both platforms were developed by activists and civic hackers involving in or inspired by the Occupy Movements in Madrid (the 15M) and Taipei (the Sunflower Movement) and were situated within wider on-going democratisations in Spain and Taiwan. It is through the genetic trajectories that the comparative study showcases how algorithmic platforms can be imbued with democratic claims and promises by politicians, activists and civic hackers. Crucially, situating algorithmic platforms in their shared trajectories of urban social movements carves out an important conceptual position which does not assume algorithmic platforms to be fundamentally anti-democratic but allow them to develop each’s own pathway towards becoming more (or less) democratic. 


Secondly, the generative comparative tactic conceptualises how algorithmic systems empower citizens across different geolocations, governmental institutions and algorithm-human relationships. The notion of algorithmic empowerment is generated by examining how the two algorithmic systems actualise democratic possibilities and practices across different sets of algorithmic orderings and human actions. Such algorithmic differences, no matter how subtle, matter for opening up or closing down political possibilities (Amoore, 2013; 2019; 2020), in this case, for empowering citizens in political decisions.  


Looking beyond this paper, the comparative urbanism has much more to offer to unpack critical data/algorithm studies. Considering the cultural richness and diversity of the highly digitalised urban societies in the Global East, comparative studies on algorithmic platforms or devices through  differences is urgently needed to broaden (or provincialize) the Northern theorisation of algorithms and data practices.  As digital geographers have already noted, ‘there is a pressing need to destabilize the dominance of the Global North as a universal placeholder and de facto field site for geographical research about the digital’ (Ash et al., 2018, p. 37).