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Data labours: Looking after the sequence universe

Seminar with Tahini Nadim (Natural History Museum Berlin)

An Egenis, the Centre for the Study of Life Sciences seminar
Date25 November 2013
Time15:00 to 16:30
PlaceByrne House

How are we to practically engage with distributed information infrastructures in order to address questions of form, design, and creativity?


Abstract

Through networking vast collections of heterogeneous data sets and federating applications and tools, DNA sequence databases such as GenBank and the European Nucleotide Archive (ENA) have turned into a veritable discovery environment, allowing users to journey through genome browsers, coding regions, biological resource centres, protein folds and literature libraries. The capacious, multi-scalar expanse of this “sequence universe” poses both methodological and analytical challenges: How are we to practically engage with distributed information infrastructures in order “to address questions of form, design, and creativity”? How can we productively query the deterministic expectations around Big Data in relation to issues such as climate change or biodiversity loss while remaining responsive to the imaginaries and idiosyncrasies of situated data practices? In this paper I would like to suggest that paying attention to the work carried out at a sequence database can offer moments for inventive problem-making (Fraser 2010), that is, occasions for radically refiguring database and data. In particular, the practice of “data curation”, that is “the transformation of biological data into an organized form” (Bateman 2010), provides rich analytical handles for engaging (with) the sequence universe. Data curation is primarily aimed at making data intelligible and discoverable and has become an integral practice within the data-intensive efforts that make up the (post)genomic science landscape. Yet, it remains informed by the ethos and practice of traditional natural history collections and comprises many unexpected, often incongruous, methods such as having visions, re-routing traffic, struggling with huge insects and (information) plumbing. Thus, in addition to relieving methodological issues, attention to data labours – their routines, sites and histories – also makes room for imagining database and data differently. Drawing on ethnographic data from my doctoral research, I wish to attend to these data labours as an instance of “looking after” the sequence universe and untangle some of the “visions” – historical, molecular and otherwise – enacted in this work.      

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