Venue: HSS Conference Room (HSS-05-57)

School of Humanities and Social Sciences
Nanyang Technological University
14 Nanyang Drive, Singapore 637332

The workshop is sponsored by the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (CoHASS), NTU


Day 1, Thursday 27th October
9.30-10.00am Welcome and opening remarks

Alan K. L. Chan (Dean, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University)

10.00-11.00am Keynote Address 1




“Data Politics”

Evelyn Ruppert (Goldsmiths, University of London)

Chair: Helga Nowotny (Nanyang Visiting Professor, Nanyang Technological University)

Question & Answer

11.00-11.30am Break
11.30am-12.30pm Session 1: Governance

Chair: Jue Wang  (Nanyang Technological University)

11.30am-12.00pm “Historical Reflections on (Big) Data, Statistics, and Governance in Twentieth Century China”

Arunabh Ghosh (Harvard University)

12.00-12.30pm “Open Data, Closed Government: Unpacking”

Hallam Stevens (Nanyang Technological University)

12.30-2.00pm  Lunch
 2.00-3.30pm Session 2: Biomedicine

Chair: Xiaoping Fang (Nanyang Technological University)

2.00-2.30pm “Big Data, Personalized Medicine and Cancer in Comparative Perspective”

Shirley Sun (Nanyang Technological University)

 2.30-3.00pm “The Architecture of Biocuration: How does Laboratory Life Persist in Post-War, Post-Disaster Japan?”

Lisa Onaga (Nanyang Technological University)

 3.00-3.30pm “Databasing Influenza: Global Health Security and the Emerging Etiquette of Virus Sequence Sharing”

Lyle Fearnley (Singapore University of Technology & Design)

3:30-4:30  Coffee and Afternoon Tea
4.30-6.00pm History Division Seminar (HSS 01-04)

“Great Exploitations: Data Mining, Technological Determinism, and the NSA”

Matthew Jones (Columbia University)


Day 2, Friday 28th October
9.30-10.30am Session 3: Planetary Data

Chair: Miles A. Powell (Nanyang Technological University)

9.30-10.00am “Using Big Data in Communication Research: Examining User Generated Opinion on Social Issues”

Trisha T.C. Lin (National Chengchi University, Taiwan)



“From the Mood of the Planet to the Mood of Singapore”

Vibeke Sorensen (Nanyang Technological University)

10.30-11.00am Break
11.00am-12.30pm Session 4: Middle Tech versus High Tech

Chair:Sulfikar Amir (Nanyang Technological University)

11.00-11.30am “‘Big’ and ‘Smart’ Ideologies: Buying Into What Silicon Valley is Selling”

Sara Watson (Tow Centre for Digital Journalism)

11.30am-12.00pm “Computing in the Margins: A Technography of Data in Rural India”

Sandeep Mertia (Sarai-CSDS, India)

12.00-12.30pm TBD

Max Hirsh (Hong Kong University)

12.30-2.00pm Lunch
2.00-3.00pm Keynote Address 2




“Data Mining: The Critique of Artificial Reason, 1963-2005”

Matthew Jones (Columbia University)

Chair: Helga Nowotny (Nanyang Visiting Professor, Nanyang Technological University)

Question and Answer

3.00-3.30pm Final discussion

Chairpersons: Hallam Stevens and Shirley Sun

3.30pm-4.30pm Book Launch

Venue: HIVE Roof Deck (52 Nanyang Avenue)

5.30pm Meet buses to Dinner

Venue: Si Chuan Dou Hua, UOB Plaza 1, 60th Floor.  


Data Politics

Evelyn Ruppert

Goldsmiths, University of London

Data has been constituted as an object vested with certain powers, influence, and rationalities. I will place the emergence and transformation of professional practices such as ‘data science’, ‘data journalism’, ‘data brokerage’, ‘datamining’, ‘data storage’, and ‘data analysis’ as part of the reconfiguration of a series of fields of power/knowledge in the public and private accumulation of data. How has data has become such an object of power and how might we critically intervene in its deployments in both theory and practice? Towards responding to this question I will discuss the conditions of possibility of data that involve things (infrastructures of servers, devices, and cables), language (code, programming, and algorithms) and people (subjects, engineers, information technologists, designers) that together make up particular transnational spaces of relations and how data is part and at the same time productive of various worlds, subjects, and rights in ways that were hardly anticipated until recently. I will argue that the articulation of political questions about these worlds needs to attend to the ways in which subjects are formed and provoked to govern themselves and others by making rights claims. Without understanding these conditions of possibility it would be difficult to intervene in or shape data politics if by that it’s meant the transformation of data subjects into rights claiming data citizens.

Historical reflections on (Big) Data, Statistics, and Governance in twentieth century China

Arunabh Ghosh

Harvard University

What is the history of data in modern China? In this talk I focus primarily on two major moments in modern Chinese history—the revolutions of 1911 and 1949—to explore what they meant for the collection and use of data. Doing so, allows us to think historically about the relationship (and tension) between data and statistics. This is a relationship that has undergone tremendous change over the last one-hundred fifty years. Statistics emerged in the late nineteenth century as an independent discipline that could help bring order and logic to masses of data—including all kinds of new data that had heretofore never been collected. The course of the twentieth century witnessed its rise as an applied science that penetrated almost all branches of knowledge production. It is therefore surprising that in our current moment of big data enthusiasm, the rise of ‘data science’ has relegated statistics to subsidiary importance. Using the history of data and statistics in twentieth century China provides a way to not only critically think about our current moment but also recognize underlying continuities over time.

Open Data, Closed Government: Unpacking

Hallam Stevens

Nanyang Technological University

Singapore’s government has signaled its intention to become a leader in data science and analytics. In 2014, for example, Singapore appointed a “chief data scientist” as part of its Infocomm Development Authority. In 2011, the government, a website for making large quantities of data available to the public in various formats. The website’s stated aims include “creating value by catalysing application development” and “facilitating analysis and research.” Presently, the site includes demographic data, traffic data, crime data, economic data, geographic/GIS data, health data, and a wide variety of other kinds of data. apparently represents a commitment to openness and availability of data (“Data shall me made easily accessible”; “Data shall be released in a timely manner”; “Data shall be as raw as possible”). However, the Singapore government has also been broadly criticized for its lack of transparency and accountability. This became a significant issue in the lead up to the 2015 General Election when opposition parties pressed the government for details of financial and managerial dealings.[1]

This talk uses a close reading of to investigate the possible meanings and potential of data sharing and open data in tightly controlled society. What possibilities does data open up in an aspiring “smart city” deeply concerned with its own security? In such a context, “data sharing” and “data openness” may become intertwined with tools of political control and legitimation. Following, so far as possible, data in Singapore suggests its potential to entrench existing social, political, and economic structures.

[1] For example, Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Party Chee Soon Juan calling accountability in Singapore “woeful.”

Big Data, Personalized Medicine and Cancer in Comparative Perspective

Shirley Sun

Nanyang Technological University

Big Data holds the promise to improve health by providing insights into the causes and outcomes of disease, better drug targets for precision medicine, and enhanced disease prediction and prevention.  Drawing on semi-structured interviews with oncologists in selected countries in Asia, the State of California (USA) and the Province of British Columbia (Canada), this presentation draws our attention to possible limitations of such a promise, focusing on the problematic construction of ethnic-specific reference populations and its clinical utility, and the unjust reductionist characterization of the complexity of cancer risk factors.

The architecture of biocuration: How does laboratory life persist in post-war, post-disaster Japan?

Lisa Onaga

Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

The reliance upon electricity to manage the indoor environments of scientific laboratories came under scrutiny among members of the National Bioresource Project shortly after the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant disasters took place in northeastern Japan in 2011. Discussions grew in this consortium about how to better prepare for calamity and “back up” the stocks of cell lines and model organisms that facilitate the material exchanges that define life sciences research both within and beyond Japan. Among these model organisms, the lucrative silkworm is an emblematic creature cultivated for its silk, and more recently, for its genetic mutations. A focus on the domesticated insect raises an opportunity to examine the historical formation and maintenance of the silkworm as bioresource in the 21st century. This in turn generates and opportunity, if not responsibility, to understand how efforts to build structures for biocurating silkworm strains in the postwar period lent to the foundation of the National Bioresource Project of Japan. The “triple disaster” of 2011 spurred a phenomenon of reflexivity about laboratory life. This operated both in terms of the organisms maintained, and in terms of altering blueprints for the physical and metaphorical architecture of a network of university and national laboratories connected by a common interest to maintain or create Japan’s research relevance globally.

Databasing Influenza:

Global health security and the emerging etiquette of virus sequence sharing

Lyle Fearnley

Singapore University of Technology and Design

When China and Indonesia refused to share samples of influenza virus with the WHO flu surveillance network, scholars described a an incipient assertion of “biosovereignty”–in which, as Aihwa Ong writes, “the state protects and leverages bioresources by placing constraints” on their transnational movement. However influenza genome sequences–rather than physical samples–have circulated along different routes that go beyond binaries of sovereign ownership or “free” exchange.  This paper draws on a close examination of the material media of influenza sequence circulation–primarily sequence databases such as GenBank–and traces the distinctive controversies that erupted over sequence sharing. Focusing on the rise of the Global Initiative for Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID) and its EpiFlu database in the wake of these controversies, I argue that although the “iterability” of sequence information can easily escape norms of sovereignty, databases also enable new technologies for regulating circulation. Rather than relying on the legal authority of the sovereign state, the governance of sequence exchanges has come to rest on an ethical instrument: a database user agreement that calls upon the ideal norm of scientific etiquette.

Using big data in communication research: Examining user generated opinions on social issues

Trisha T. C. Lin

National Chengchi University

Analyzing myriad Internet data captured by computer systems is regarded as an objective way to understand online users’ behaviors. The increasing popularity of big data research in communication doubles the number of journal publications in the past 1.5 year. As of May 2015, we found 39 SSCI-indexed communication journal articles related to big data s in the database of EBSCOhost’s Communication & Mass Media . Only 12 of them have collected and analyzed empirical user data and 10 focused on analyzing tweets. In terms of topics, most articles are related to advertising and marketing, followed by civic engagement and political communication. Majority of authors came from the United States and Europe and only two articles were published by Asian researchers. In 2013, the author conducted a web analysis of haze-related online data during two-month serious outbreak of haze in Singapore, with the textual analysis of news content on traditional and new media websites. Singaporeans used Twitter mostly to communicate haze issues. Web analytics identified four main categories of Singaporeans’ online haze discussions, and found that their topics’ positive association with daily news reports. The results also showed that more than 75% of new media content was of negative sentiment, while mass media and government-related websites produced stories with positive angles. Additionally, textual analysis showed similar results that new media haze reports tended to have alternative viewpoints with critical tones. This research demonstrates that combining big data analysis and textual analysis is an insightful way to understand online public opinions towards critical environmental issues.

Keywords: Big data, communication research, social issues, online public opinion, web analytics, textual analysis, twitter

From the Mood of the Planet to the Mood of Singapore

Vibeke Sorensen

Nanyang Technological University

Abstract: This talk will discuss the conceptualization and development of three experimental  artworks that engage Big Data, Mood of the Planet (motion light architectural sculpture), Mood of New York,  and Mood of Singapore (motion paintings), and the associated challenges and potentialities when considering similar works and lessons learned for new projects that integrate Big Data in ‘aesthetic’ ways into daily life as a new kind of ‘public art’ and as a pervasive smart design element for use in architecture and environmental design.  Mood of the Planet is an interactive sculpture, produced in 2015 upon the invitation from RMIT Melbourne to participate in an exhibition entitled Everything is Data. Made of 30 building blocks of what were to be ‘smart-tiles’, and consisting of crushed recycled glass and custom electronics, the blocks emit light, and the colours and shapes change based on a real-time analysis of electronic communications representing human emotions, which emanate from social media sources such Twitter, from all across our planet. The current mood of the people of the Earth through colour and motion thus become an immersive presence, a dynamic rainbow that bathes everyone in light. The Mood of New York and the Mood of Singapore as Big Data paintings followed, and were exhibited in New York City in April-May 2016 and at NTU Singapore since June 2016 respectively. Given that the works are experimental, they are also continually ‘in progress’ as improvements in technology become available. Current collaboration with Prof Erik Cambria of CSE, NTU is taking place for enhanced semantic analysis of moods, concepts and feelings of the data. Thanks also to ADM Visiting Artist Fabrizio Galli, ADM staff Mr. Nagaraju Thummanapalli, Ms Faith Teh and Mr. Dennis Low of NTU Museum, Mr. Ong Kee Sing of NTUitive, and Prof Marsha Kinder of the University of Southern California. The Mood of the Planet and the Mood of Singapore received support from the NTU Museum.

“Big” and “Smart Ideologies: Buying Into What Silicon Valley is Selling

Sara Watson

Tow Centre for Digital Journalism


Computing the Margins – A Technography of Data in Rural India

Sandeep Mertia

Sarai-CSDS, India

What is ‘data’ in different infrastructural and cultural contexts? It is arguably one of the most important technological and anthropological questions in the non-western world. Particularly in India, which has the fastest growing Internet and mobile user base, the techno-cultural complexity and the multiplicity of infrastructure demand different conceptualisations of the data revolution. Based on an ethnography of technologies of data collection in rural areas and its subsequent analytics, I will try to reflect upon the emerging lives of social data in India. Tracing the liminal materiality and meaning-making of data as it circulates from survey forms to dashboards, I will try to map the contextual relationships between data, infrastructure and knowledge production.


Max Hirsh

Hong Kong University


Data Mining: The Critique of Artificial Reason, 1963-2005

Matthew L. Jones

Columbia University

Data mining, or, as it was known, Knowledge Discovery in Databases (KDD), is the activity of creating non-trivial knowledge suitable for action from databases of vast size and dimensionality. From the mid-1960s to the late 1990s, data mining moved from a disparaged, dubious sort of statistical work — “fishing” or “dredging” — to become what its practitioners proclaim to be an utterly transformative technology. According to KDD advocates, traditional scientific approaches to data — and the traditional competencies of scientists — simply could not keep up with the volume of data and multidimensionality possible thanks to computers. Something else is needed, something less pure — because it deals with vast impurities of dynamic data, nearly always from a particular business, governmental, or scientific research goal. Establishing the legitimacy of KKD meant demonstrating that lack of luxury. Using traditional and digital humanities methods, I look at how stories of technologically determined emergence were crucial to the legitimization of data mining in authorizing the loosening — and the transformation the disciplinary and epistemological values of its predecessor disciplines, statistics and machine learning.