A new paper by Rob Kitchin – Thinking critically about and researching algorithms – has just been published (online first) in Information, Communication and Society.
More and more aspects of our everyday lives are being mediated, augmented, produced and regulated by software-enabled technologies. Software is fundamentally composed of algorithms: sets of defined steps structured to process instructions/data to produce an output. This paper synthesises and extends emerging critical thinking about algorithms and considers how best to research them in practice. Four main arguments are developed. First, there is a pressing need to focus critical and empirical attention on algorithms and the work that they do given their increasing importance in shaping social and economic life. Second, algorithms can be conceived in a number of ways – technically, computationally, mathematically, politically, culturally, economically, contextually, materially, philosophically, ethically – but are best understood as being contingent, ontogenetic and performative in nature, and embedded in wider socio-technical assemblages. Third, there are three main challenges that hinder research about algorithms (gaining access to their formulation; they are heterogeneous and embedded in wider systems; their work unfolds contextually and contingently), which require practical and epistemological attention. Fourth, the constitution and work of algorithms can be empirically studied in a number of ways, each of which has strengths and weaknesses that need to be systematically evaluated. Six methodological approaches designed to produce insights into the nature and work of algorithms are critically appraised. It is contended that these methods are best used in combination in order to help overcome epistemological and practical challenges.
The final version is available here and a pre-print version of the paper can be downloaded here.
On January 28th 2015, Ben Williamson visited the Programmable City Project and delivered a seminar on “Programmable Schools”. Ben is a lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Stirling. His current research focuses on learning analytics, policy labs, and the emergence of new forms of digital education governance and digital policy instruments. This presentation drew on the ESRC-funded Code Acts in Education project that Ben is currently leading. Continue reading
We are delighted to welcome Ben Williamson to Maynooth on Wednesday 28th January for the third of our Programmable City seminars this academic year. Ben Williamson is a Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Sterling. His current research focuses on learning analytics, policy labs, and the emergence of new forms of digital education governance and digital policy instruments. His presentation at Maynooth will draw on the ESRC-funded Code Acts in Education project that Ben is currently leading.
We’re pleased to announce the advertisement of a three year postdoc position on the Programmable City project. Full details of the project can be found on the Maynooth University HR page, but essentially the post will study algorithms and code used in smart city initiatives (broadly conceived) from a software studies perspective. As such, the project will critically examine how software developers translate rules, procedures and policies into a complex architecture of interlinked algorithms that manage and govern how people traverse or interact with urban systems. It will thus provide an in-depth analysis of how software and data are being produced to aid the regulation of city life in an age of software and ‘big data’. The primary methods will be a selection from those set out in the paper ‘Thinking critically about and researching algorithms’.
We are seeking applications from researchers with an interest in software studies, critical data studies, urban studies, and smart cities to work in an interdisciplinary team. Applicants will:
- have a keen interest in understanding software from a social science perspective;
- be a proficient programmer and able to comprehend other developer’s code;
- have a good, broad range of qualitative data creation and analysis skills;
- be interested in theory building;
- have an aptitude to work well in an interdisciplinary team;
- be prepared to undertake overseas fieldwork;
- have a commitment to publishing and presenting their work;
- have a willingness to communicate through new social media;
- be prepared to archive their data for future re-use by others;
- be prepared to help organise and attend workshops and conferences.
The closing data is 5th December. See the full job description here for more details.
We would encourage any interested candidates to apply for the post and for readers of the blog to bring the post to the attention of those who you think might be interested, or circulate in your networks/social media.
A new paper by Rob Kitchin has been posted as open access on SSRN. From a Single Line of Code to an Entire City: Reframing Thinking on Code and the City is The Programmable City Working Paper 4.
Cities are rapidly becoming composed of digitally-mediated components and infrastructures, their systems augmented and mediated by software, with widespread consequences for how they are managed, governed and experienced. This transformation has been accompanied by critical scholarship that has sought to understand the relationship between code and the city. Whilst this work has produced many useful insights, in this paper I argue that it also has a number of shortcomings. Principal amongst these is that the literatures concerning code and the city have remained quite divided. Studies that focus on code are often narrow in remit, fading out the city, and tend to fetishize and potentially decontextualises code at the expense of the wider socio-technical assemblage within which it is embedded. Studies that focus on the city tend to examine the effects of code, but rarely unpack the constitution and mechanics of the code producing those effects. To provide a more holistic account of the relationship between code and the city I forward two interlinked conceptual frameworks. The first places code within a wider socio-technical assemblage. The second conceives the city as being composed of millions of such assemblages. In so doing, the latter seeks to provide a means of productively building a conceptual and empirical understanding of programmable urbanism that scales from individual lines of code to the complexity of an entire urban system.
Keywords: code, city, software, programmable urbanism, software studies, smart city, urban studies, assemblages
A new paper by Rob Kitchin has been posted as open access on SSRN. Thinking critically about and researching algorithms is The Programmable City Working Paper 5.
The era of ubiquitous computing and big data is now firmly established, with more and more aspects of our everyday lives being mediated, augmented, produced and regulated by digital devices and networked systems powered by software. Software is fundamentally composed of algorithms — sets of defined steps structured to process instructions/data to produce an output. And yet, to date, there has been little critical reflection on algorithms, nor empirical research into their nature and work. This paper synthesises and extends initial critical thinking about algorithms and considers how best to research them in practice. It makes a case for thinking about algorithms in ways that extend far beyond a technical understanding and approach. It then details four key challenges in conducting research on the specificities of algorithms — they are often: ‘black boxed’; heterogeneous, contingent on hundreds of other algorithms, and are embedded in complex socio-technical assemblages; ontogenetic and performative; and ‘out of control’ in their work. Finally, it considers six approaches to empirically research algorithms: examining source code (both deconstructing code and producing genealogies of production); reflexively producing code; reverse engineering; interviewing designers and conducting ethnographies of coding teams; unpacking the wider socio-technical assemblages framing algorithms; and examining how algorithms do work in the world.
Key words: algorithm, code, epistemology, research