Justice and the Digital symposium notes

The Digital Geographies Research Group of the RGS-IBG held the annual symposium at the University of Sheffield, under the theme “Justice and the Digital”. These are partial notes from the day

The symposium opening session focus on the important question “What’s Justice got to do with it?”

DSC_0956Jeremy Crampton covered three issues – practices of surveillance in the context of smart cities. Surveillance is seen as an Orwellian term, and a problematic term – for one thing, it does not affect everyone in the same way – for example, argument that ongoing camera used by police reducing complaints about police actions (though we can figure out the complexities); secondly, the increased use of AI and facial recognition, and finally, surveillance rely on recialised/biased approach to societal ordering. This can be understood and explored through database ethnographies.

The second point is the way in which digital services are being delivered (e.g. Amazon) and they are similar to Red Lining practices from the mid 20th century.

The final demonstration of the complexities is the competition from the government in the UK between universities to use technology to increase transparency and inclusion. If you don’t address structural problems, the technology is not the solution.

The challenge is to induce transformations and not just accept views.




Emily Tomkys Valteri (OXFAM) – looking at digital inequalities – the past 50 years we have seen major digitisation and fusing of digital and physical with transformation to the fourth industrial revolution and the narrative of acceleration by showing how long it takes to reach 50 million users for a technology  – from 50 years to few days. Existing technologies are used in new ways. We see self-mobilisation – e.g. #MeToo or #IWillGoOut for women in India. Social media raise awareness to campaign and add additional pressure. Digital cash provides support to people to access markets – in Kirkuk electronic vouchers are safer than cash for women to use. There is also aspects of historical knowledge: education, where people who are displaced use to live, what they have done, and that is being used to support new opportunities. There are new opportunities and technologies have a potential to disrupt existing spaces.

But – there are issues of gender divide and women are less likely to own a mobile phone and even to use it. The phone is not in a neutral space. Design of technology – women hold 17% in tech jobs and therefore it is designed by men. MIT checked AI in facial recognition and demonstrated huge differences between the ability to identify light colour men and dark skin women. Technology and social media can be hijacked by the government to spread specific narrative – e.g. in India where the ID programme is blocking people from access to services and are being hurt, or Myanmar distributing false stories on the Rohingya minority.

People look at the promise of technology and rights and ethics later – blockchain is a good example. they might be useful in digital work, but we need to put the vulnerable people first. We need rights and standards first (from the @HHI_Signal diagram below)


Oxfam knows that they can’t confront the latest technology. We need a rights-based approach; second co-create and co-design and work with users and not for the users; we need to bridge the private and public sector.

James Richardson (The Good Things Foundation) – digital inclusion charity. Working in the UK, Kenya and Australia. The perspective is in terms of individuals using the system. Digital exclusion implies different things: Internet and the access to such systems (but it is possible to reach out through other means). There are personal circumstances that change the internet from usable to a lifeline. 4.5m people in the UK who are offline and many of them see themselves as absolutely fine without it. Patterns of usage are important – 6 hours a day or a month: it is important what they do and how. There is a linkage between usage online and offline. Higher social economic use digital to enhance their cultural capital. Lower levels more likely just to follow. Digital can increase inequality instead of reducing it.  Need a level playing field for content, Information literacy about the interval – depends on your source of information – also issues of specific bubbles. Digital self-efficacy is the ability to change things is locked by the end of schools, a third of learners who haven’t finished school find the learning and joining the digital difficult. Find the internet “not for people like me” – a serious injustice. Barriers that exist in social forces that influence life before school.

Dorothea Kleine – concluded with some reflections. First, conceptualise justice – which is a topic of over many millennia of discussion from Plato to Sen. Different concepts and types of justice: distributive, retributive, procedural, interactional, organisational, environmental and more… Need to notice the issue of representation (visual, voice), access (digital divide), usage opportunities, the way it change economic relations, the physical and material artefacts, the data, control, and co-production with the digital and how we extend them with digital tools, and how the digital plays in spaces of protest.

There’s a need to move from discussion of the global north to other areas and view of the digital from another area. In particular, the capabilities approach to development (Sen approach) – expanding the freedoms that people enjoy. What life people want to live and enjoy. Is the digital supporting the future that we want or hindering it? There are vast differences between countries and genders. There are also dimensions of just access and usage – availability, norms of use of time and space. There are many barriers for mobile phone use -family have a major influence on mobile phone use in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Algeria – social norms influence digital spaces. We should also design for equity, in which we give marginalised people an advantage.

Discussion about academic collaboration: data on digital exclusion is a topic for research – OXFAM experienced the difficulties of preparing data for analysis, or Good Things experienced involvement in RCTs. There is a major churn in the field – when people don’t share information and leave the organisation, then starting to standardised surveys – come with best practice survey and in paper and data collection tools, so they should use it. There are issues about the design of technology and the way that it is applied – also outcomes structures. From universities perspective, the push to impact can allow for new collaboration and sometimes asking the tougher questions.

For the main part of the symposium, I’ve joined Strand 3: Justice and Global Digital Inequalities. 

I gave a talk about the concepts of passive and assertive inclusion, with citizen science as a demonstration of the complexities of inclusion.

[There were digital shorts – a short presentation on digital currencies and psych-social wellbeing of participants in ICT4D projects, LGBT+ use of tech in the development context – didn’t noted that part]

Further discussion was provided by Emily and James who discussed more their morning presentations:

Emily – following on – two things about inequalities: context matter and access is not enough. We need to consider the context. Adding something (technology) still happens within wider inequalities in society. Oxfam project check feedback mechanism, this is part of core humanitarian standards and request from funders – lots of time it’s a hotline and suggestion box with zero responses. The reason for the lack of use of the suggestion box is that the gang that control camp was monitoring it and there is also high illiteracy. So power dynamics in the group are huge and impacting. Gender is particularly complex and access will not be enough – confidence, a perception that people will be afraid to use it, potential harm. e.g. a potential link of increase domestic violence with women empowerment project. Quite often in ICT project – they are based on practical needs, e.g. living conditions such as radio broadcasts and SMS, but need to address underlying problems. In the digital identity in different cases, the potential for empowering women, in multiple cases male relatives got involved in the process – e.g. not a place for women to go to the registration centre. Issues of taking pictures, or a male agent touching a thumb of a woman in the process. Some exciting things happening – e.g. social media and messaging on violence against women, e.g. creating a safe space for discussion online and offline.

James – covering the funding model – digital is powerful but need context. How digital by default influence equality. The shared commitment of the organisation is the use of ICT to improve life – addressing loneliness, age, ethnic disadvantages. People who come to the centres have multiple problems – e.g. people with debt problem partially because of digital literacy issues. The people in the centres are acting like carers and addressing the problem regardless of what it is so not putting boundaries. The funding model of the organisation – they work from digital inclusion to general inclusion. Instead of projects, they get funding for a holistic inclusion help. Because of the austerity, there is a need to consider the mix of funding to keep the light on and similar issues – expectation that volunteers will take the slack and work for free. For example, the support in immigration issues that is done with ad-hoc translation by the local community member who speaks the language and English. The third sector and government should be involved in developing policy.

The Digital Shorts include:

Andrea Jimenez – how innovation and entrepreneurs help development – the language that is being used to argue that this is the routes for getting out of poverty. Looking at innovation hubs. Issues of justice – how entrepreneurship became a way to get out of poverty, and especially for women. You can’t entrepreneur a way out of a system. Also, Bird point about can’t fit women into a system that it is inherently male. Need alternative narratives that are using from the global south and how to look at innovation and entrepreneurship with a local view.

Hannah McCarrick – analysing the way that soil, ICT and smallholders in Tanzania interact. There is an e-agriculture to increase agricultural productivity. Examining the local knowledge of farmers and how it matches the knowledge in the ICT system. Tanzania is providing a good place to explore the relationships between.

Closing Panel: Justice and the Digital: What can geographers’ contribute?

Ayona Datta (King’s College London) – Smart Cities in Postcolonial Context. Justice and the digital in the context of urban transformation in India, and translation to gender experiences. A key aspect is not only spatial justice but also the notion of time justice, a history of pushing for empowerment and against the triple burden. Time poverty is important for women and the bigger smart cities – efficiency, more for less. Digital space is imposed top down. Societal norms are limiting the use and potential of digital products. There is a potential for using WhatsApp diary as a way to record it and mapping it on GIS. There is some visual crafting of narratives – some digital spaces are used in a manipulative way.

Muki Haklay (UCL) –  I explored the aspects of geographers, digital technologies, and environmental justice. The link in the area of environmental information started in the 1990s (with Aarhus and Principle 10) and there is an assumption of use of information and science in order to join decision-making process, which led to early use of ICT such as in Renee Sieber paper on Conforming (to) the oposition from around 2000, it is somewhat horrifying to see how scientification and use of technology now consume large areas of development and humanitarian support to communities in the UK and elsewhere. This actually gives us an opportunity to think about the way the digital impacting justice and environmental justice provides a space to see that over a longer period, with problems in the lack of provision of easy to use information that is understandable and usable. Geographers contribution is through abilities to move between domains and knowledge – the aspect of being an undisciplined discipline. There is an effort by geographers to build new systems to demonstrate that alternatives are possible, but there is also a certain futility and utility of digital interventions. Rethinking concepts of participation, and putting it in the context of scientification of society, and the way digital tools are influencing this process.

Sam Hind (University of Siegen) – the practice of process and demonstrations. Generally, don’t use the term justice, and more thinking about care and ethics. Look at justice through care in the study of geography from the past. Developing new care through a digital platform. 2007 AAG address, Silk “Caring at a distance” – use the example of large charity events such as Live Aid created relationships. Important media in relationships, but we can take some idea to think of mobile mediated sense. Carrying at a distance through mobile media. We can check “interface objects” that effect the type of decisions that are made by people who access these systems. Could we generate new interface objects and how they influence carrying relationships?

Desiree Fields (The University of Sheffield) – financialisation of the private rental sector. Two ideas – through a narrative through tech are claims of transparency, which is the politics and invisibility – face recognition, redlining etc. Tech assumes transparency as a good for itself – the question who is making things visible, why and for whom? transparency is not necessarily empowering – marginalised people and places are being made transparent in order to be controlled. Politics of visibility have lots of justice is important. In NYC the JustFix it is a platform for helping to collect information to address injustice from landlords. The second aspect is the question of the pace of change, how the rapid pace of change – e.g. following technology which disappears. We focus on rapture (disruptions) – we should also look at continuities. Social, power, and political powers are not changing that fast. For example, the interaction between real-estate activities and technologies.



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Professor of GIScience, University College London

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