Developing a feeling for error

Emma Garnett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper is based on ethnographic research of data practices in a public health project called Weather Health and Air Pollution. (All names are pseudonyms.) I examine two different kinds of practices that make air pollution data, focusing on how they relate to particular modes of sensing and articulating air pollution. I begin by describing the interstitial spaces involved in making measurements of air pollution at monitoring sites and in the running of a computer simulation. Specifically, I attend to a shared dimension of these practices, the checking of a numerical reading for error. Checking a measurement for error is routine practice and a fundamental component of making data, yet these are also moments of interpretation, where the form and meaning of numbers are ambiguous. Through two case studies of modelling and monitoring data practices, I show that making a ‘good’ (error free) measurement requires developing a feeling for the instrument–air pollution interaction in terms of the intended functionality of the measurements made. These affective dimensions of practice are useful analytically, making explicit the interaction of standardised ways of knowing and embodied skill in stabilising data. I suggest that environmental data practices can be studied through researchers’ materialisation of error, which complicate normative accounts of Big Data and highlight the non-linear and entangled relations that are at work in the making of stable, accurate data.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages12
JournalBig Data and Society
Issue number2
Early online date9 Aug 2016
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2016


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