Anything but an even canvas

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Resham Kotecha is Head of Policy at the Open Data Institute

Resham Kotecha explains how the Open Data Institute responds to global challenges surrounding critical data infrastructures

The art of global internet infrastructures

It may seem unusual for an organisation like the Open Data Institute (ODI) to have its own art programme, or to analyse or respond to topics about data through the creative process.

Yet at the ODI, our Data as Culture programme has now been a fixture for over 10 years, commissioning original artworks and curating bold exhibitions – many of them in our offices. Pieces on show have included Ellie Harrison’s Vending Machine, which vends free crisps when the headlines mention recession;  Eva and Franco Mattes’ Ceiling Cat and; Rohini Devasher’s One Hundred Thousand Suns, which draws on 120 years of data about the sun.

If you want to expand the public’s understanding of data – as the ODI does – you sometimes have to be prepared to think and work differently in order to move the conversation along. Moreover, our art programme is integral to our research,with multidisciplinary enquiry part of our practice - where data scientists, social scientists and artists collaborate to explore research questions together.

The latest example of this culminated in our recent report Power, ecology and diplomacy in critical data infrastructures.The art serves as the response to research on the material critical data infrastructure that allows the internet to function, along with all the services that rely upon it. The report also considers the power dynamics of this infrastructure and its value as a tool of diplomacy, as well as the environmental issues inherent within it.

We delve into data centres, submarines and satellites - as parts of data infrastructure - as well as how privatisation, global inequality and regulation can, and will, impact on data use. We also look at how data benefits businesses and communities around the world. With a growing reliance on data by new technologies,  the ways in which we access, use and share data are becoming increasingly important on a global scale.

The artwork that emerged from the project was created by embedded artist, Dr Julie Freeman. She is the founder of the ODI’s Data as Culture programme, which is now overseen by Associate Curator, Hannah Redler-Hawes. Dr Freeman was an integral part of the Power, ecology and diplomacy report’s research team, sketching in the office as she began work on her creation of Allusive Protocols. This is a kinetic artwork created from shape memory materials, which have the ability to return naturally to their original form. The artwork considers how the fragile connections that serve up our internet can continually grow to levels of complexity - perhaps beyond human comprehension, but not necessarily beyond human influence. 

Dr Freeman worked with the research team to respond to their selection of  data centres, subsea cabling and satellites as a major focus within the report. The researchers also considered ideas of progress and consumption, echoing current concerns about ever-expanding use of data, the energy that data centres consume and the impact on the environment. This is only set to grow further with the boom in AI and data-driven domestic tech and gadgets – from cars to fridges – and through burgeoning societal and business applications. 

The final report is punctuated by related artworks that look at the topics of networking, nature, infrastructure and power, illustrating the way that the ODI sees the relationship between data and art. Here, work in one arena often inspires that in the other. 

Clouds on the bottom of the ocean

Artists have long been fascinated by clouds, with Constable, Ruskin and Turner among those who have made their study a life’s work. But this group of artists would have more trouble sketching or painting the digital clouds of today, which often fly way over our heads in satellite form, or traverse the ocean bed in the form of subsea cabling. These clouds are familiar to most people as the places we back up photographs from our phones or access music servers, but they are home to most of what we know as the internet, and are vulnerable to accident, sabotage or blatant attack. 

Most of this cloud infrastructure is privately-owned, which means that the development of data ecosystems has often followed market forces rather than government policies or the needs of the public. This seemingly contradicts some early ideas that the internet and digital space would be increasingly free and open. Amazon, Google, Meta and Microsoft hold over half of the world’s hyper scale data centres, with these companies soon to possess more than 30 long-distance cable connections to every continent, consolidating information with power. 

At the same time, around the world, communities are showing a positive desire to take an active part in the development and control of digital and data infrastructure. In the US, for example, more than 800 communities have established their own broadband networks, with around 500 of these being publicly-owned. 

On the other hand, securing the physicality of the internet can allow commercial actors to control the flow of data passing through it and to make rules about what they view as appropriate uses of their infrastructure. Low earth orbit broadband provider Starlink in Ukraine has enabled Ukraine to maintain internet connectivity during a Russian invasion that targeted the country’s communications infrastructure. However, the providers of Starlink curtailed the use of its service ‘for offensive purposes’, demonstrating the challenges that arise when power is concentrated in the hands of just one or two providers. 

Elsewhere, Amazon Web Services (AWS) suspended the far-right associated social media app Parler's access to its cloud computing services, citing violations of its terms of service related to hate speech. We may not agree with the views being expressed, and may be pleased that there is less hatred out there, but such sanctions could equally be applied by other cloud providers against human rights campaigners living under oppressive regimes, or campaigners for LGBTQ+ rights in countries where there are none. The question here is one of power and whether we are comfortable with how it may be wielded and by who. 

At the ODI, one of our core principles is for everyone collecting and using data to be highly alert to inequalities, biases and power asymmetries. All organisations working in data should take proactive steps to ensure that they contribute fully and consciously to creating a diverse, equitable and inclusive data ecosystem. This is something that we need to ensure is front of mind for everyone in this growing space, from global corporations to governments, as well as new tech companies and communities. 

Taking a byte out of ecological costs

Data infrastructure technology has developed at such a pace that we have barely had time to step back and take a look at the opportunities and risks that emerge from its advancement. There has been discussion in recent years regarding the environmental impact of internet servers, not least in the conversation around blockchain technology and digital currencies. However, there has been less attention paid to the build, launch and eventual fall of the satellites that connect us to services which rely on geospatial data.

Then there is the ecological cost of embedding cables in the ocean floor or sourcing water to cool data servers. Air cooling was used until the carbon costs were highlighted, but water-cooling still has a high impact in energy and ecology terms, with mining for essential tech minerals such as cobalt often having a huge impact on land and people. Every cable and circuit board has an ecological footprint, but data is the driving force behind the rush for ever more capacity to store and to share. 

The ODI sees enormous social, economic and environmental benefits in sharing data better. For example, we believe that increasing trust so that organisations can share and use data can help tackle greenwashing via better data assurance and data stewardship, encouraging transparency and accountability. Some organisations have innovative approaches to tackling the environmental costs of data use, with social justice non-profit The Engine Room using a RAD (Retention, Archiving and Disposal of data) approach to its data collection and usage. 

This may be something that more of us consider in the future, as we ponder the ecological implications of our extensive data storage. Other innovative mitigations include using the heat produced by a UK data centre to warm up a nearby public swimming pool, and Sweden going further in the shape of Stockholm Data Park, whose  aim is to heat 10% of Stockholm by 2035.

There is little doubt that data will continue to have an ecological impact, and the design of future critical infrastructure should take into account the environmental effects of their construction and continued use. We also hope that these systems can be designed to encourage collaboration and co-operation in order to resolve environmental concerns, utilising the power of data to ensure our advances do not come at the expense of the planet.

Resham Kotecha is Head of Policy at the Open Data Institute.