Automation depends on multiple practices that seek to mediate and smooth out the differences, contingencies and frictions within and between datasets. Data thus exist ‘in potentia’, as possibilities that can only be realized through practices that make them ready for combination, computation and interpretation. Myriad rules, procedures, and routines organize and structure these practices, which are made explicit in documentation called metadata, or ‘data about data.’ The premise of metadata is that by making practices explicit and transparent, accountability for and trust in data can be secured. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork conducted across several national and international government statistical offices, I explore how metadata legitimize practices that make data usable and powerful and serve as vital infrastructures in the crafting of automation.
Evelyn Ruppert is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. She studies how digital technologies and the data they generate can powerfully shape and have consequences for how people are known and governed. Her research attends to how digital technologies and data are also changing how people understand themselves as political subjects, that is, citizens with rights to speech, access, and privacy. How citizens make claims to such digital rights through what they say and what they do through digital technologies are key questions that she addresses. Evelyn is PI of an ERC funded project, Peopling Europe: How data make a people (ARITHMUS; 2014-19). She is Founding and Editor of the SAGE open access journal, Big Data & Society. Recent books are Being Digital Citizens (co-authored with Engin Isin) published in April 2015 (RLI International) and Modes of Knowing (co-edited with John Law) published in August 2016 (Mattering Press).