World Social Forum, Montreal

At the World Social Forum in Montreal, we focused on defining data in relation to public service provision and social justice.

One walk headed down Mont-Royal Boulevard in the centre of the city, and another wound through the alleyways behind it.



Digital Data Transforming Public Processes

The main street walk identified how everyday public service processes had been transformed by the introduction of digital data, but also how this ‘datafication’ created inequality. Parking cars now involved using a smartphone app rather than currency – although some of Montreal’s parking machines still accept cash. Using a car-sharing service also required a smartphone, and depended on the service’s access to the internal GPS of the smartphone. A personal concern about data surveillance might mean missing out on access to a sharing car – and no smartphone would mean no carshare at all. These data also all leave traces that can become bought, sold, traded and monetized – so who benefits?


Public Payphones

This walk also observed big differences in data-mediated services and other services. There was no integration of digital data into provision of the bus service – and as a result finding out where and when to take the bus was a real challenge. The walkers also noticed that some public payphones remained on the street, and speculated on when and where these would be used. Perhaps for drug deals, or other communication that would benefit from being difficult to track? Or for people who don’t carry or can’t afford a mobile phone?



The walkers concluded that adding digital data processes to the provision of public services created a risk of ‘splintering’ services so that more data-mediated services were available to those willing and able to stay connected and share data with the private companies who often operate these services – and that public services like the bus system risked suffering from a perception that, being non-data-mediated, they were inferior. The walkers also discussed how the valuable markets for personal data intensified this splintering.


Gardens as Data

The other Montreal walk observed processes of shared and collaborative production in the alleys around Mont-Royal Boulevard. They referred to the shared gardens and collaboratively-planted back alley foliage as ‘data’ that they could use to extrapolate a framework for other collaboratively-owned resources, including collectively owned electricity generation and other forms of local commons. They observed that ‘data’ in the form of well-tended plants behind some properties and poorly-tended ones behind others indicated that contributions to such commons were never perfectly equal.