2–3 November 2017
Southgate Mercure Hotel, Exeter
Sabina Leonelli and Niccolò Tempini
Over the last three decades, online databases, digital visualization tools and automated data analysis have become key tools to cope with the increasing scale and diversity of scientifically relevant information that is being accumulated. Digital access to data is widely seen to have revolutionized research methods and ways of doing science, leading to a ‘data-intensive’ approach for research, encompassing innovative ways to produce, store and interpret large datasets (so-called Big Data), as well as ways of disseminating them widely through the Internet to foster re-use (so-called Open Data). However, the characteristics and implications of data-intensive science have proved hard to articulate, especially given the distinctive histories, methods, objects, materials, aims and technologies characterizing the several research areas involved. Such pluralism has been discussed by social scientists such as Rob Kitchin and Christine Borgman, but differences and similarities have not systematically been reviewed by philosophers and historians of science. This conference addresses this gap, using situated, historical and philosophical methods to track the travel of data across different spaces and domains of research practice, analyze how such journeys affect the knowledge being produced, and discuss the disciplinary differences and similarities in the conditions under which data are handled. The combination of philosophical, historical and qualitative sociological methods of research is uniquely useful to capture opportunities, challenges and concerns involved in making data move from the sites in which they are originally produced to sites where they can be integrated with other data, analyzed and re-used for a variety of purposes, thus identifying key conditions of possibility for the vision of widespread data sharing and integration characterizing discourse around Big and Open Data.
Contributors to this conference have been discussing such issues and shaping their research in relation with each other over a number of years, and most recently under the umbrella of the project ‘The Epistemology of Data-Intensive Science’ funded by the European Research Council (ERC). These exchanges have generated a common approach and set of goals for these contributions, which include the attention to data journeys (understood as the movement of data across research situations, e.g. Leonelli 2016), the focus on detailed case studies to explore and contrast the specific and local characteristics of the data practices in question; a strong awareness of the extent to which the chosen cases act (or not) as representatives for wider concerns and attitudes within each field; and a long-term engagement with scholars working on many different fields, aiming to explore comparative dimensions and implications for conceptualizations of data-intensive science. This approach facilitates both an in-depth understanding of data-intensive methods within each field and a comparative analysis of data practices across disciplines.
Borgman, C. (2015) Big Data, Little Data, No Data. MIT Press.
Kitchin, R. (2013) The Data Revolution. Sage Publishers.
Leonelli, S. (2016) Data-Centric Biology: A Philosophical Study. Chicago UP.
The ERC grant covered participation fees (conference and catering, but not dinners). However, this came with two conditions:
- Limited places, assigned on a first-come, first-served basis, by emailing the project administrator Chee Wong at
- Participants committed to attending the full two days, so as to contribute to the ongoing discussions. An exception could be made for those scheduled to teach; for those it was acceptable to sneak out and in again.
Each session was composed of a maximum of twenty minutes of presentation for each pre-circulated paper, followed by commentaries by two discussants (five to ten minutes each), and thirty minutes of general discussion. To make the best of the time together in Exeter, all delegates had to read the draft chapters in advance; these were available as PDF archive from September onwards with participant logins.
Wednesday 1 November
19:00 Welcome dinner
Thursday 2 November
9:00 Introduction by Sabina Leonelli
9:30 Session 1: Publication and Regulation as Vehicles for Patient Data. Chair: Sabina Leonelli (University of Exeter)
- Rachel Ankeny (University of Adelaide): Standardizing data in medicine via case reports: From pragmatics to epistemological constructs data in medicine via case reports: From pragmatics to epistemological constructs
- David Teira (Open University) & Niccolò Tempini (University of Exeter): Policy of Truth: Data Journeys from the Patient to the Pharmaceutical Regulator
- Commentaries: Kaushik Sunder Rajan (University of Chicago) & Jean-Paul Gaudillière (CERMES3)
11:30 Session 2: Skills and Tools Enabling Data Interpretation. Chair: Niccolò Tempini (University of Exeter)
- Alberto Cambrosio (McGill University): ‘Overcoming the bottleneck’: Knowledge architectures for genomic data interpretation in the oncology domain
- William Bechtel (University of California at San Diego): From Data to Network Diagrams and Analysis in Systems Biology: Cytoscape and NDEx
- Commentaries: John Dupré (University of Exeter) & James McAllister (University of Leiden)
14:00 Session 3: Visualising and Ordering Data. Chair: Rachel Ankeny (University of Adelaide)
- Ed Ramsden (Queen Mary University London): Realizing healthful housing: Devices for data travel in public health and urban redevelopment in the 20th century United States
- Staffan Müller-Wille (University of Exeter): Joining data across cultures: Kinship Analysis and Statistics in Late Nineteenth-Century Anthropology
- Andrea Woody (University of Washington): Smart search through complex landscapes
- Commentaries: Helen Longino (Stanford University) and Ted Porter (UCLA)
16:30 Session 4: Data and Materials. Chair: Gail Davies (University of Exeter)
- Gregor Halfmann (University of Exeter): Material origins of a data journey in ocean science: How sampling and scaffolding shape data practices
- Alison Wylie (University of British Columbia): Temporal data that travel: Radiocarbon Dating and Robustness Reasoning in Archaeology
- Commentaries: Jean-Paul Gaudillière & Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (MPI for History of Science)
19:00 Conference dinner at the hotel
Friday 3 November
9:00 Session 5: Data Modelling and Transformation. Chair: Staffan Müller-Wille (University of Exeter)
- Wendy Parker (University of Durham): From Climategate to inhomogeneous worlds: Data, synthetic data and the estimation of global temperature changes
- Götz Hoeppe (University of Waterloo): Data journeys in astronomy: Forms of mediation and the reflexivity of research practice
- Niccolò Tempini (University of Exeter): The reuse of digital datasets: Transformation, recombination and generation in data linkage practice
- Commentaries: James McAllister & Hans-Jörg Rheinberger
11:30 Session 6: Data Journeys in Dialogue. Chair: Brian Rappert (University of Exeter)
- Marcel Boumans (University of Utrecht) & Sabina Leonelli: From dirty data to tidy facts: A comparison of practices of clustering in plant phenomics and business cycle analysis
- James Griesemer (UC Davis) & Mary Morgan (LSE): The datum in context
- Commentaries: John Dupré & Ted Porter
14:00 Session 7: Points of Origin and Verification. Chair: Gregor Halfmann (University of Exeter)
- Koray Karaca (University of Twente): Construction of data at the Large Hadron Collider
- Brian Rappert (University of Exeter) & Catelijne Coopmans (National University of Singapore): Making art into (non-)data: Perception, expertise, and techniques of authentication
- Commentaries: Helen Longino & Kaushik Sunder Rajan
16:00 Final Discussion: Themes and structure of the conference volume. Chair: Sabina Leonelli