Data Lives: How Data are Made and Shape our World

by Rob Kitchin, Bristol University Press, 2021, 274 pp.
Hardback, £18.99; e-book, £18.99, ISBN: 978-1529215151

Trusted Eye: Post-World War II Adventures of a Fearless Art Advocate by Claudia Fontaine ChidesterAs we become more swaddled by data in our everyday lives, it becomes almost impossible to fully comprehend its impact and potential outcomes in the future. In Data Lives, Rob Kitchin takes a novel approach to examine a complex topic that is data. Instead of choosing a traditional academic writing style, Kitchin blends fictional and personal stories to explain how data are produced, processed and interpreted, as well as the consequences of these actions. Through storytelling, the author aims to make readers relate to these experiences at the same time that he dares them to question our datafied world.

In Part I, titled Data Stories, Kitchin presents a summary of how we found ourselves living in a data-driven world that has eroded our faith and trust in governments and companies due to the opaqueness of how data is used. The author presents us with the concept of “cooking of data” in order to make the reader comprehend how human values, desires, and social relations impact the use of data and how this use can empower and also exploit, discriminate and persecute individuals (p.5/6). This way, Kitchin demonstrates that by understanding that data and data systems are never raw, but instead always cooked (p.5), it is possible to challenge the “mantra of data revolution” (p.6) and contest unjust outcomes.

Part II, titled The Life of Data starts with a mix of fictional stories and real-life inputs by the author that follows the reader until the last section of the book. Although the stories have different subjects, they all have a long arc of argument that unites them: teaching readers the basics of data.

The first sections demonstrate how processes of extraction, abstraction, generalization, and sampling in data can introduce error, noise, imprecision, and bias, and that knowing this information is essential to end the fairy tale that data is neutral and can be trusted blindly (p.41). By sharing his personal experiences, Kitchin dives into other technical aspects of data such as fragmentation and harmonization and through a series of different examples. He also enlightens readers on how data standardization initiatives are essential to avoid a “Data Tower of Babel”, and why they are central in enabling territorial politics and systems of governance.

The succeeding sections address the topic of Open Data. Through fictional stories, the author sheds a light on how some governments still fight against open data by holding back funding, although Open Data can be considered a great benefit to society, enabling the involvement of other key actors to participate in projects. For Kitchin, this involvement can change the outcome of “The Politics of Building Civic Tech” (p.69). By understanding that data is not neutral, value-free, or non-ideological, it becomes possible to allow other stakeholders to have a say on how this data is “cooked” to their benefit (78). In the next section, the author contrasts the Open Data vision by presenting us with the reality of massive data silos held by data-driven organizations that are used for profit and held indefinitely.

Part III, named “Living with Data”, starts with one of the most interesting sections of the book, titled “Traces and Shadows”, in which Kitchin takes the reader through a journey of his life with data, both working with it and being impacted personally by it. This journey makes the reader identify with how our own lives are impacted by data and reflect on the surveillance capitalism we live in (118). This is the first step into the next sections of fictional stories that shows how data is embedded in everyday actions. Watching a recommended movie on a streaming service, or following health recommendations from an activity tracker, for Kitchin, are both examples of how “scopophilic technologies” (p.131) manipulate pleasure hormones in our brains. All of these examples demonstrate how we quantify and self-generate data about our lives and provide private companies with data that they would not otherwise be able to get. 

The next section sheds a light on the dark side of data: the non-contextualized metrics that impose performance indicators promising productivity and performance enhancement, but which instead deliver narrow, biased patterns of behavior. The outcomes of metrics provide policymakers with biased data that ignores the nuances of the real world, as is exemplified by the story of an unemployed firefighter that failed to keep up with State metrics to earn benefits. Yet Kitchin provides us the light at the end of the tunnel by indicating how more engaged, nuanced forms of management result in less stressed more productive workers.

The last section of stories in the book centers around how cities have become a “security theatre” (p.169), transforming citizens into datafied individuals, similar to Guinea Pigs in a laboratory experiment (p.153). Through sensors, every movement and action in cities is monitored with the promise of providing better administration services, while instead delivering surveillance and non-representation. In this context, in the section Data for the People, by the People the author expresses how data is not able to magically solve chronic problems, it is necessary to implement “technological sovereignty”, empowering individuals to redistribute the power of data to their benefit (p.193).

Part IV of this book is concludes, with Kitchin situating the COVID-19 pandemic as an event that exemplifies the core concepts of his book, demonstrating how decisions that impacted the world were based solely on data that were sometimes biased by underlying political intentions. 

In Data Lives Rob Kitchin reaches to dare the reader to question and demand better data solutions from companies and governments. This book is very relevant to both academic and non-academic audiences, and it makes complex topics relatable to readers’ everyday lives without underestimating their technical aspects.

Barbara Lazarotto, Vrije Universiteit Brussel