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Infrastructures of Public Data

In my dissertation I explore the policies and material practices of open government data in the City of Los Angeles. I examine how these practices relate to concepts of transparency, democratic participation, and open government. Open government data broadly reflects changing cultural understandings of data writ large, particularly assumptions about how “big data” technologies can act as solutions to urban ills. Narratives and discourse around open data emphasize the benefits and economic surpluses that government data can generate once it becomes widely available. Whether building phone apps to visualize data or using data to make policy decisions, these practices are also often based on the myth of data’s identity as a neutral statement of “what is.”

This research confronts the discourses of open data through an empirical analysis of open data in Los Angeles from 2013 to 2016. Over the course of three years, I conducted in-depth, semi-structured interviews with city staff in nine departments to understand the foundations of their open datasets. I also interviewed participants and organizers at civic hackathons and Hack for LA nights. For historical material, I gathered and interpreted a variety of primary documents including monographs, legal statutes, Congressional hearings, letters, and institutional reports. The resulting dissertation seeks to broaden the typical, narrow public discourse about government transparency from one focused on the unvarnished virtues of openness and the political neutrality of data to an understanding of the broader political economy of public data, which comes with new public-private partnerships and vectors for political agency.

Data Activism and “Agonistic Data”

Through case studies and participant observation, I have been analyzing different types of civic data actions that use statistical representations to contest political matters; these include collecting data on a phenomenon neglected by the state, disputing the state’s parameterization of an issue, creating alternate metrics that account differently for a phenomenon, and resisting state data collection altogether. I offer a critical framework to understand practical applications in which individuals might actively interrogate data and their relation to it, as well as improve data literacy in communities that have particular stakes in certain data sets. I draw from political theories of democracy, including American pragmatism and post-structuralist critical theory, to make a distinction between deliberative data practices, those that attempt to augment authoritative data on a phenomenon, versus agonistic data practices, which provide alternative representations of an issue and do not attempt to reconcile with official numbers. To this end, I’ve also been part of efforts to involve communities in interrogating data through collective analysis and GIS mapping.

Technologies of Surveillance

As a result of my research on the emergence of data infrastructure, I have also had the opportunity to work with community organizations outside of UCLA. Currently I’m part of a research project with the grassroots group Stop LAPD Spying that traces infrastructures of government surveillance. We are analyzing the historic crime data that is regularly fed into predictive models used by police patrols and imagining alternatives to the current informational relationship between law enforcement and communities. This research sheds light on the relationship between state surveillance technologies, public data, and social justice.


Networked Participation

From 2011 – 2015 I was part of UCLA’s Participation Lab, an NSF-funded research group supervised by Professors Christopher Kelty and Aaron Panofsky. The Part.Lab works at the intersection of science and technology studies, open source and free software, and organizational theory. In our paper, “Seven dimensions of contemporary participation disentangled,” we developed a taxonomy of participation that looks at concrete examples of how participation takes place across the internet, in projects related to government, science, economy, and the civil sphere – and also of when participation might be exploitative labor in subtler forms. A large part of this work theorized Internet-based activity within the framework of historic political theories of participation. Using this framework, we analyzed case studies of disparate activities including social media, citizen science, open source software, and romantic dating apps. We found that the technical and legal infrastructure of these internet-based projects played a role in the collective experience of participants in terms of inclusion, agency, and equity. Particularly, these forms conditioned levels of participation across a spectrum, from expansive modes of engagement to limited and even extractive forms.