SODAS Lecture: Data Visualisation as a Critical Practice

SODAS lecture
We are delighted to host Francesco Ragazzi for this SODAS Lecture

Data Visualisation as a Critical Practice: Mapping Biometric Mass Surveillance in the World


Public and scholarly debates in International Relations are increasingly dominated by large quantities of data. In this context, visualisation is often presented as a way to render this data accessible. Yet as beautiful aesthetic objects, data visualisations - understood as the mathematical visualisation  of datasets - very often smuggle old assumptions about maps, plots and graphs: namely that they represent an objective, neutral, and value-free reality. Should critical international relations scholarship, grounded precisely in the critique of such objectivity thus abandon data visualisation? Are networks, graphs and maps inescapable devices of positivism and security as some scholars have argued? In this paper, while acknowledging part of the critique, I argue that it is possible, and indeed desirable, to use data visualisation tools critically. I show concretely how this could be done, through a data visualisation interface some colleagues and I have developed to map critically the deployment of Biometric Mass Surveillance systems in the world.


Francesco Ragazzi is associate professor in International Relations at Leiden University (Netherlands) and associated scholar at the Centre d’Etude sur les Conflits, Liberté et Sécurité (France). He is also co-director of ReCNTR (Leiden University’s Center on Multimodal and Audiovisual methods). His research interests include counter-radicalisation, counterterrorism and digital surveillance. His current research project SECURITY VISION ( explores the security uses of computer vision in areas such as biometric surveillance, social media content moderation and border control. 

This autumn, the theme of the SODAS lecture series is "Global Data Politics".

Global Data Politics 

Almost everything we do – how we meet, vote, shop, socialize or love – has become infused with, and is constantly generating new, digital data. Such data has helped generate entire professions such as (social) data science, and providing new insights into personal habits and convictions. With its capacity to reconfigure social relations, data has become the object of both local political struggles and activism and large-scale geopolitical clashes. In this lecture series, we investigate the emerging field of global data politics and turn to questions about the simultaneous datafication of politics and the politicization of data: What is the place of data in contemporary democracies? Does data have a nationality? How can and should cross-border data flows be governed and regulated? Can states, companies – or citizens – become digitally sovereign? Who owns (digital) data and their material infrastructure and why does this matter? (How) can we use digital data to change the world?