Call for Papers: Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting – Data Infrastructures, Nature, and Politics

Organizers: Eric Nost (University of Wisconsin, Madison), Jenny Goldstein (Cornell University)

Discussant: Luke Bergmann (University of Washington)

Date and location: April 5-7 2017, Boston, MA

Conservationists around the world are turning to new data collection, modeling, and visualization software they believe may help “save the planet”. For some conservationists, data paucity and irregularity may constrain environment governance more than political will, capacity, or legitimacy (e.g. Hsu et al. 2012). At the same time, corporations are developing new software for intensifying resource extraction or managing their use of ecosystem services. In both cases, as actors extend their use of new digital tools and grapple with big data, they run up against the social and technical limits of existing data management platforms, standards, and institutions – the data infrastructure. This session explores the making and un-making of data infrastructures by which conservationists and corporations – as well as development practitioners, scientists, and state planners – generate scaled, uneven, and actionable knowledge about the environment. In particular, we are interested in: contestation around data infrastructures that respond to or remake material environments; performative effects and surprising failures of data infrastructures (Bowker 2000); and the conditions under which technical approaches can further “appropriate,” just outcomes instead of re-entrenching state and capitalist power (Fortun 2004).

Political ecologists have shown how economic forces and institutional cultures shape who is called upon to make environmental science, which perspectives are deemed legitimate, and the values and interests characterizing this knowledge. But as STS scholars have argued, knowledge production relies on sociotechnical infrastructures–proprietary and open source devices, embodied practices, and social institutions–that are variously ubiquitous but transparent, learned but reliable (Edwards 2007). While political ecologists have shown how environmental science generated with digital tools like GIS and remote sensing drives particular land management policies (Robbins 2001; Turner 2003), we aim to characterize the broader infrastructures supporting the use of these tools and how these infrastructures themselves are sources of contested policy and material change. Although much recent political ecological work on infrastructure has focused on tangible systems, we seek to apply insights from this work to digital infrastructure, with the help of research from STS and geographies of technology (Wilson 2011; Leszczynski 2012, Ash et al. 2015) to better understand the new social relations, regimes of governance, and natures brought about by changes in the management of environmental data. Work from developing world cases is especially encouraged.

We are particularly interested in presenters who address one or more of the following:

  • What it means to an environmental expert in the age of big data and how volunteered, crowdsourced data reconfigures environmental expertise (Eden 2012; Lave 2015)
  • How data infrastructure transforms environmentalism and generates ecological/geographical imaginaries (Easterling 2014)
  • How conservation organizations change when they become data brokers and/or managers
  • Misalignments and tensions between designers, managers, and users of environment-related data infrastructure (Oudshoorn and Pinch 2003)
  • Who bears the costs of maintaining digital infrastructure, who gets to be involved in creating databases, and who defines what data is valuable
  • How data management infrastructures operate within bureaucracies
  • Critical physical geography approaches linking data infrastructure regimes and specific ecological outcomes
  • Methodologies for researching digital infrastructures (Star 1999)
  • Histories of data infrastructure (Jackson et al. 2007)

We invite interested participants to send their title, 250-word abstract, and affiliation to Eric Nost ( and Jenny Goldstein ( by October 15, 2016. We will notify accepted participants by October 22. As this session has a discussant, we will ask participants to circulate their papers several weeks prior to the conference.

Ash, J; Kitchin, R; Leszczynski, A. 2015. Digital turn, digital geography? The Programmable City, Working Paper No. 17.
Bowker, G. 2000. Biodiversity Dataversity. Social Studies of Science 30(5): 643-683.
Fortun, K. 2004. Environmental Information Systems as Appropriate Technology. Design Issues 20 (3):54–65.
Easterling, K. 2014. Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space. London: Verso.
Edwards, P. 2007. A Vast Machine. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Eden, S. 2012. Counting fish: Performative data, anglers’ knowledge-practices and environmental measurement. Geoforum 43 (5):1014–1023.
Hsu, A., A. de Sherbinin, and H. Shi. 2012. Seeking truth from facts: The challenge of environmental indicator development in China. Environmental Development 3 (2012):39–51.
Jackson, Steven J., Paul N. Edwards, Geoffrey C. Bowker, and Cory P. Knobel. 2007. Understanding Infrastructure: History, Heuristics, and Cyberinfrastructure Policy. First Monday 12(6).
Lave, R. 2015. The Future of Environmental Expertise. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 105 (2):244–252.
Leszczynski, A. 2012. Situating the geoweb in political economy. Progress in Human Geography Published (1):1–18.
Oudshoorn, N. & Pinch, T. 2003. “Users and Non-Users as Active Agents in the De-Stabilization of Technologies” in How Users Matter: The Co-Construction of Users and Technology.
Robbins, P. 2001. Fixed categories in a portable landscape: the causes and consequences of land-cover categorization. Environment and Planning A 33 (1):161–179.
Star, Susan Leigh. 1999. The Ethnography of Infrastructure. American Behavioral Scientist 43(3): 377-91.
Turner, M. D. 2003. Methodological Reflections on the Use of Remote Human Ecological Research. Human Ecology 31 (2):255–279.
Wilson, M. W. 2011. Data matter(s): legitimacy, coding, and qualifications-of-life. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space (January).
Zoomers, A., A. Gekker, and M. T. Schäfer. 2016. Between two hypes: Will “big data” help unravel blind spots in understanding the ‘global land rush?’. Geoforum 69:147–159.

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