Living on Fumes: Digital Footprints, Data Fumes, and the Limitations of Spatial Big Data | Jim Thatcher

Jim Thatcher (Clark University); Living on Fumes: Digital Footprints, Data Fumes, and the Limitations of Spatial Big Data; In International Journal of Communications (IJC); Volume 8; 2014; 19 pages; landing; previously in Proceedings of the 26th International
Cartographic Conference (ICC), 2014.

tl;dr → whereas capitalism is bad, the critical theory: sociotechnical, epistemic project, abductive processes, epistemic limits, epistemic and ontological commitments, capitalist profit motives, private corporations; frameworks of Marcuse, Pickles. You get the idea.


Amid the continued rise of big data in both the public and private sectors, spatial information has come to play an increasingly prominent role. This article defines big data as both a sociotechnical and epistemic project with regard to spatial information. Through interviews, job shadowing, and a review of current literature, both academic researchers and private companies are shown to approach spatial big data sets in analogous ways. Digital footprints and data fumes, respectively, describe a process that inscribes certain meaning into quantified spatial information. Social and economic limitations of this data are presented. Finally, the field of geographic information science is presented as a useful guide in dealing with the “hard work of theory” necessary in the big data movement.


  • In the introductory paragraph, cites opinements in Fast Company and Mashable as authoritative directional indicators.
  • Two problems
    1. <quote>On the one hand, rather than fully capturing life as researchers hope, end-user interactions within big data are necessarily the result of decisions made by an extremely small group of programmers working for private corporations that have [been] promulgated through the mobile application ecosystem.
    2. On the other hand, in accepting that the data gathered through mobile applications reveal meaningful information about the world, researchers are tacitly accepting a commodification and quantification of knowledge.</quote>
  • Big Data is
    • (wait for it …) very big, “large” even.
    • <quote>data whose size forces us to look beyond the tried-and-true methods
      that are prevalent at that time</quote>, Adam Jacobs.
    • Contrarianism
      • Something vague about Taylorism, Max Weber, etc.
      • Something vague about how having more data is better, or is not better.
    • The Fourth Paradigm
      1. empiricism
      2. analysis
      3. simulation.
      4. explore & exploit
    • Sources
      <quote>Most current studies describing themselves as “big data” with a spatial component revolve around two mobile software platforms [Foursquare, Twitter]</quote>

      • Foursquare
      • Twitter
      • Facebook
      • Flickr
  • Types of Data [plural of types of Datum(s)]
    • Checkin
    • Tweet
  • Livehood
  • 25% of Foursquare users link their Twitter accounts (75% don’t)
  • <quote>Finally, the reliance upon data generated with an explicit motive for profit — both for the end user and the corporation—results in epistemological commitments not dissimilar to concerns raised with regard to the knowledges and approaches privileged by GIS use. </quote>
  • <quote>This hard work of theory opens new knowledge projects within the realm of big data. For example, if the check-in is viewed as a form of disciplining technology — one that reports location to enmesh it more fully in capitalist exchange — then purposeful location fraud takes on new meaning as a potential form of resistance or protest.</quote>


  • private companies
  • profit motives
  • capitalism


  • Digital footprints
  • Digital fumes


  • PostgreSQL
  • R
  • Mac (OS)


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Via: backfill.

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