Data Sensing

August 20th, 2019

A home-built device travels downstream to explore the limits of digital representation and the possibilities of uncertain knowledge.

The Anthropocene highlights the limitations of existing frameworks in terms of data collection and analysis with the suggestion that researchers across disciplinary fields have run up against the limits of the knowable. This has been revealed in a number of ways, including an inadequacy in existing techniques to analyze a changing and uncertain future, challenges to the way in which researchers frame human activities relative to environmental transformation, and the politics that inform how and what questions can be asked. How are the artists and researchers associated with the project Mississippi. An Anthropocene River engaged in explorations of the limits of the knowable, and what role does the concept of the Anthropocene have in prompting such questioning? This project tests experimentally how data is collected and gathered using a home-built device that will accompany artist John Kim on his journey downriver.

The Mississippi River is one of the most heavily monitored and studied river systems in the world. The United States Geological Survey, the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Weather Service, along with numerous NGOs contribute to the collection and interpretation of the river across a variety of environmental and hydrologic parameters. This data plays a central role in constructing ways of sensing and understanding the river, the impact of human activities on it, and efforts to manage it. The collection and interpretation of this data sits at the intersection of a number of technoscientific developments, including computational modeling and simulation techniques, quantitative thinking, and disaster prediction, among others.

In light of the changes associated with the Anthropocene, one can also recognize how data exists as a constraint—for it delimits the horizon of the sensible. Data conceals just as it reveals. This project takes the Mississippi River as a case study for these concerns, as many of the projects involved in Mississippi. An Anthropocene River concern the collection of data. How do researchers understand the river in relationship to the data collected about it? How does the omission or failure to collect uncertain forms of knowledge constrain what we know about the river? How are researchers engaging in new and expanded modes of data collection in order to challenge prevailing sentiments about the river and its history and future? This project will engage in conversations with the diverse group of researchers, activists, public officials, and artists participating in the project Mississippi. An Anthropocene River about their work on the river, focusing on how data is integral to the process of forming knowledge about the river, and examining the limits of digital representations of the environment.

As we make our way down the Mississippi River from Lake Itasca to New Orleans, participants in the River Journey will also be collecting and contributing environmental, hydrologic, and travel data, including water quality, flow, kinetics, temperature, and other parameters. This data will not only serve as a chronicle of the changes as we move downstream but will also be shared with a group of researchers who will be using it for basic scientific analysis and teaching. Along the way, we will lure some of these researchers and educators into conversations about this project; this series of conversations and interviews will seek to convey both the process of doing science about the Mississippi River and the construction of its representation.

Github repository for the project

Data sensing CSV archive