Ingrid Burrington: Tactical cartography

Ingrid Burrington talks about growth of Occupy movement, why she got involved, how we look at maps. She discusses how governments talk the talk of Big Data and how that differs from their behaviour in reality.

Ingrid Burrington lives in New York and has been involved in the 'Occupy' movement there, as well as other campaigns related to finance and public life. She says she didnt' know she was an activist until she found out it's not what people do full-time. She talks here about growth of Occupy movement, why she got involved, how we look at maps, and asks what is the equivalent of the medic tent in an online community? She also discusses how governments talk the talk of Big Data and how that differs from their behaviour in reality, and how the role of activists should be to “build better problems”.

Tell us about the experience of the Occupy Movement? 

I felt like Occupy was something that I couldn't really ignore. I grew up through the Bush administration in the States, when I became increasingly demoralised because I would go to anti-war protests and read all of the horrible things the government was doing, and nothing would happen. You could get thousands of people out and nothing would change. So when Occupy happened, initially I was very skeptical, but then I showed up and I was really struck by how different the environment felt from a lot of the traditional protests I had attended or had been involved in. After the eviction, rather than step away, it made me more active, because it felt like there was really something at stake. There had been this huge loss and there was intense trauma that a lot of people experienced. So it felt like I had to put more into it.

I was one of those people who just kept showing up and eventually realised that I might be useful. I think it started with me just asking as we were planning an action: "Has anyone made a map of where we're going, or of the route, or the framework?" Nobody had, no one knew how, and I did.

What did you do?

I made a map. We joked throughout that I was the 'Tactical Cartography Department' of Occupy Wall Street. I was responsible for making a lot of the maps that helped people figure out how to do actions. If you had a lot of people showing up at an event, they wouldn't necessarily know what the plan was going to be, where we were going, or what would be safe or not safe. A lot of it was just making materials to help people. It was also a way to negotiate security interests by deciding to put all of our plans out in a very public way. We operated for some events under the principle of “assume that the police already know what you're doing because if you don't, then you keep everything secret and then nobody comes.”

What was the biggest lesson you learned, over the whole period from the starting point to the eviction?

I think one of the biggest takeaways from Occupy, both before and after the eviction, was that building a better world doesn't actually mean you're going to build a world that is ideal. It wasn't a utopian society in the park. People argued in the park and there were conflicts. There were conflicts in meetings and there were conflicts in a lot of the spaces that were held for a while after the park. And that was good, they were worked through. It was difficult sometimes and some people walked away unhappy with the decision, but the process of actually working through conflicts in those spaces I found much more rewarding than an activism that's based on top-down structure of "this NGO is going to make all the decisions, and get people to show up, and they're not going to open the doors to other people being part of that decision-making process?" Sometimes when a meeting would get really, really contentious, or there'd be an assembly that would start to get a little out of control, I would just think about that chant: "Show me what democracy looks like." It looks kind of messy and it looks kind of frustrating, and you get bored and irritated, but it's so much more rewarding than not participating at all.

The movement has been growing in the last few years and at the same time, a lot of information has been revealed, such as WikiLeaks, Snowden on NSA spying, and also the drone program. The state of politics in the US seems even worse than it was during the Bush administration and the Occupy Movement happened in parallel with the changing international perspective on the role of the US as a country in international politics. What are the lessons amongst all this have you observed or learned yourself?

I think another major takeaway from Occupy, that has become a big part of current US political scandals, especially  the NSA spying program, is a demand for radical transparency – asking who are the actors? What is at stake? Who is benefiting? A big part of the build-up to Occupy began with frustration following the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009. You had major financial institutions and financial players who had committed really egregious acts, but who had ultimately never suffered any consequences. The public and citizens were suffering the consequences. And at the same time, most of the people in those financial institutions were part of this revolving door system where they were the ones making policy decisions that served to benefit private interests.

Understanding what our government's actual interests are and why they're doing what they're doing is a big part of that debate, and I think that that's a part of why Occupy has been important to that discussion. One of the things you heard a lot about the NSA wire-tapping story when it first broke was people saying that they weren't surprised. They were upset, but they weren't really surprised. It had gotten to a point where there was an expectation that this was probably happening. We just didn't know how bad it was yet.

A lot of people say that radical transparency is against the concept of a secure state. Especially in the American context where it's being promoted as a threat...

Right, so the US Government in this instance will often use the spectre of cyber terror, or terror in general, to justify the  hyper security state. It's interesting, I've reading a book about the history of black sites in the US Government. It's by Trevor Paglen, and it starts in the 1940s when research is happening under the Manhattan Project to create the first nuclear bomb. You have Niels Bohr, who is this really dedicated advocate for open information in science and technology, saying "what are we doing? How can we possibly be creating this enormous secret apparatus?" And they are saying, "we have to do it this way because we don't want the other side to get the information. And these are extraordinary times."

What you saw after World War II was that the extraordinary times remained extraordinary. They never stopped being this imminent threat, it just changed shapes or changed ideologies. I think something similar has happened in the last decade with terrorism. We're always going to be living in extraordinary times where the state has to protect us against imminent catastrophe. One of the things that's been a real challenge to that project is that simultaneous to the creation of massive surveillance you've had a massive opening up through the Internet. You've had the expectation that people will share information freely. A lot of the conflicts that challenge this expectation of the security state comes from the simultaneous rise of Internet culture.

Does it seem suspicious for you that a government, that has been involved in recent scandals of scanning citizens' communication and information sharing, are also a promoter of open data? They created an initiative of open governance, but it seems suspicious as they are the biggest beneficiaries from this massive amount of information.

Yes, there's an absolute contradiction in the way that the US government talks about data and openness and transparency, and how they actually behave. Actually, the weekend before the NSA leak broke the federal government declared June 1st and 2nd 'National Civic Hacking Day.' There are people who are in jail in the United States for hacking (the specific case I'm thinking of is Jeremy Hammond, who's currently facing ten years for being part of a hack into a private security contractor who worked for the government's databases). So for them to be even using the term 'hacking' I think is really fascinating.

I think partly that contradiction, the rise of this surveillance culture and the embracing or appropriating of open technology ideologies, has to do with the simultaneous appropriation of the open technology idea by private interests and business. You'll have Facebook talking about hacker culture and openness, but it's really openness under very specific terms and for very specific benefits. And it's also for specific gains. Sometimes I'll be at these New York City tech events or 'hackathons', and you see some of the worse aspects of start-up culture embedded in things that are supposed to be for the civic good. Instead of creating a start-up so that you could be bought up by Google, you create a start-up so you can be bought up by the World Bank?

Do you think that the Occupy movement has been able to expand so far because of certain freedoms in the virtual world, enabling them to collaborate and exchange information, to have a dialogue across borders with a wider group of people? Do you see a possibility in re-creating these freedoms from the virtual world in the physical space?

I think that the relationship between the openness of the virtual world and the openness of the communities that were created in public space through occupations in the last few years is important, although I don't think that either is necessarily that dependent on the other. I mean, public occupation as a tactic of protest existed long, long before the Internet. And the infrastructure of a public occupation has existed long before the Internet and serves needs that the Internet would never really think of. What is the equivalent of the medic tent in an online community? I'm really am curious about that, and have been thinking about that for a while.

I think that the online space created and fostered an attitude among people who became involved with Occupy, perhaps of a willingness to collaborate. Partly it was having the space to collaborate, but also just being able to enter into working with someone who you'd never met before, who you had no previous contacts with, and feeling an inherent sense of trust and camaraderie knowing you were there for the same reasons.

I think that the surveillance state is a major threat to that ability to have that kind of open dialogue and open interaction, because there is always a concern that who you are speaking with is not who you think they are. And that really only serves to tear down those communities. You then get people working in secret and silo-ing. Part of maintaining that culture, both online and off, is about maintaining dialogue and being very open in public about who you are, your intentions, and what you're doing.

Do you think there's the promise in the virtual world of a different kind of state, or different kind of governance, that either citizens could explore or governments should learn about?

There is both potential and risk in the models that the virtual world offers as alternatives to governance, because on the one hand you see the barriers created by nation states broken down in a really beautiful way. You see people working across cultures, working with people who they would not have ever had the opportunity to work with because of all sorts of geopolitical factionalising. On the other hand, you have the ability of groups to work across borders towards their own gains, or at the expense of large groups of people. One good example would be how transnational corporations can wreak havoc on communities and have no sense of accountability because they're almost like super-sovereigns. They've gone beyond the level of power that a nation-state would have.

Maybe on localised levels, I think there's some interesting technology and tools that can be pulled from the Internet and be used to address models of governance and structures. I become wary about when it becomes larger in scale, where accountability ultimately lives in a government which makes large decisions about how other people get to make decisions.

What would be your advice for an activist who perhaps doesn't even know they are an activist, entering that political space for the first time?

I think the most valuable thing for me when I started to engage with activist spaces was simply to listen to everything, even and especially things that I didn't agree with. Just pay a lot of attention to the people around you and don't be afraid to ask questions. If you are afraid to ask questions, then just keep listening harder. There's a tendency to think that if you're going to be involved in activism, that means you're going to stand up and do something, when sometimes it's much more valuable to be available to others. You don't necessarily need to be the person to make the speech, but you can be the sounding board before somebody else goes and makes the speech. And there's a lot of value to doing work that doesn't seem like it's activism.

An example from my own experience was when we organised a convergence for the one-year anniversary of the Occupation. I inadvertently became the person responsible for figuring out housing for hundreds of people coming from all over the country to New York City for this protest. And that work involved really tedious things, like writing lots of emails, making lots of pleas to people, managing spreadsheets, and checking in with people really aggressively. That's not work where you feel like, "man, Jamie Diamond's gonna be really upset that I'm doing this”, or “I'm really sticking it to the man," but that's the work that gives a movement resilience. That's the work that makes it possible for everyone to do that work. Making sure that people are supported is a really crucial part of being able to get to the place where you can cease or dismantle institutions of power. For someone stepping into that space for the first time, starting with the support structure is valuable experience because you in turn are supported by the structures.

What are the risks of entering this field?

Well, there's the state. I feel very privileged to be working in a place where there is already an expectation of freedom of expression, and there are already a lot of rights assumed that in other places are just now starting to seem possible norms. But at the same time, that means that repression can take on a much more pernicious quality. I feel like repression in the United States will either  appear in a very sneaky way, which is not very easy to observe, like police beating protesters, or that's manipulated in the press to blame the victim of the repression. The best example I can think of is my boyfriend, who on two separate occasions was pulled off a side street leaving marches, arrested and held on completely meaningless charges. One was an outstanding warrant for someone who had a different name - they made a warrant for someone with the name he uses on Twitter and at marches. But it's not his real name, so it was obvious that they'd been following him and paying attention to him. They knew he was someone that they should target and they did. He was held for hours, questioned about what he'd been doing that day, and who he'd been talking to.\ \ At another demonstration he was charged with assaulting an officer, which is a felony. So you're someone in your twenties and you're not doing anything, and the state has all the power to speak in this case. If they say they are charging you with assaulting an officer, and if they charge you with assaulting an officer, you wait months for your court date. Those were months where he was terrified to go to demonstrations. He was terrified to even publicly state on social media where he was and what he was doing. It's much easier for people who are outside of this world to believe that maybe he did do something -  “you know how unruly those activists get, he probably did punch a cop." But he's a tiny guy, he couldn't even hurt a cop. Now anything he does related to that charge could seriously compromise the rest of his life.

What is the role of information in your work?

I use information in my work in two ways, one as an educational aspect of the work I'm doing, and one that's tactical. One way that I use information specifically has been looking at financial information and trying to make sense of it, as a way to understand the corruption or inequalities in the system and visualise that inequality using numbers.

On a tactical level it's usually information about  interconnections that institutions have with each other, and that individuals at institutions have with each other, then using that to find weak points in a network or spaces that can be exploited. It might be looking at who's on the board of a large financial institution and what other boards they are on. What kinds of policy institutions are they on the board of, and is that policy institution having an event? Is the person who's part of an institution you don't like going to be speaking somewhere? It's more about finding opportunities to engage publicly with actors by finding what else they're doing and seeing what their networks look like. It's really interesting that you were asking me who I'm trying to influence and how. One of the biggest takeaways I've gotten in the last year is about how you can't talk to everybody.

Right now I'm interested in talking to people who could go either way on political issues, or who don't consider themselves people who have the capacity to be impactful agents in the political system. I'm trying to demonstrate why they might feel that this system is rigged in such a way that they don't have any influence. In some ways they don't have as much influence as they could, so I try to break down how specific government structures work or don't work and have conversations with people about what they think would work better. That's the part that I think is the hardest, trying to conceive of a better world that activists love to say is possible.

You've said before that the ideal world is not possible, but a world with better problems is. What are better problems?

I like to think about activism as building better problems, insofar as recognising what underlies the problems we're already talking about. I'm really interested in public transportation, and austerity measures that go into fare increases while services are cut. That's a problem in that, "oh, my train's not where I thought it was," or "it costs more money." But the better problem to wrestle with is misallocation of resources and financialisation of public services. That's a harder problem but it's a better problem. Another example might be, rather than the problems of young women feeling insecure about their self-image because of media representation, the better problem is identifying the patriarchal systems that stand to benefit from young women feeling bad about themselves. That's a better problem.

I'd much rather live in a world where we challenge those problems than the smokescreens that are really the tactics that those problems are built on. 

So how do you use data with that information to grab people's attention?

A lot of the work that I do involves maps, whether they are network maps or physical ones. What I think is really powerful about maps as a tool for visualisation of political issues is that they are very self-referential. When you look at a map, you're kind of looking for yourself in it. You look at a map of the city you live in and your eyes almost immediately go to your block. Even when you look at a world map, you are trying to see the distance between yourself and other places. When you overlay data into maps you can see a lot about how you are part of a larger problem, or part of a larger condition.

One example of a map that I worked on was a taking census data about median incomes throughout New York City, looking at how much money people were making in different places, overlaying that with the subway system and data from each station about the kind of train ridership of each week, and the kind of fare cards that were being used. There's a tiered system of fare cards and it's more expensive to buy an unlimited 30 day ticket, which is ultimately a better deal, than buying a single card ride tickets.

And, guess what, in a poor community you see more people buying single ride cards, which ultimately add up to a greater financial impact. So you see more public transit usage in areas where people spend more money on transit. And what that shows is that the system, as it stands, is flawed and not really benefiting all of the public in the same way. I think starting with something that people can understand as part of their lives is useful, because then you can take them on a longer journey to see how something that seems far from their lives does come back to it.

How much of the narrative you are building your own interpretation of the data?

What I feel like I'm doing with these existing datasets that makes them more meaningful is shaping them into a story that people can understand and understand themselves as actors within.

Should data speak for itself?

If data spoke for itself we'd live in a very different world, I think. All information is just an abstraction, it's not necessarily fact. Information is the result of the collection and interpretation of a lot of things, so I think that if you just hand someone raw data (although there's no such thing as raw data), they're not necessarily going to understand how they themselves are implicated in those numbers, or it's going to overwhelm them. Often when you talk about problems related to the financial industry and government, you're talking in trillions and billions of dollars. I don't even know what a billion looks like and it takes a lot of work to show somebody what a billion really looks like.

What is the importance of curation and storytelling in building an interface that is an entry point for people to explore information for themselves?

I think it's important whenever developing a story with data, and trying to establish a narrative about a policy issue, to provide some way for that story to continue after you've tied up all your loose ends and loaded the final beautiful image or chart. Often people will work really furiously on making these very complicated data visualisations, or writing really complicated policy papers and explaining really complicated, broken systems, and then offer only critique, and no possibility of how it could be different. No clear call of what should be done about it. And that is partly because it's really hard to do. But I think that opening up space for dialogue about what the alternative is, is a good first step.

First published on October 28, 2015