Melanie Feinberg: Everyday Adventures with Unruly Data

April 20, 2023
Melanie Feinberg

Thursday, April 20 at 3pm
Freedom Forum Conference Center, Carroll Hall

Whether questioning numbers on a scale, laughing at a misspelling of one’s name, or finding ourselves confused in a foreign supermarket, we are engaging with data. The only way to handle data responsibly is to take into account its human character. Though the data presented in this book may seem familiar, close scrutiny shows it to be ambiguous, complicated, and uncertain: unruly. Drawing on the tools of information science, Feinberg uses everyday events such as deciding between Blender A and Blender B on Amazon to demonstrate a practical, critical, and generative mode of thinking about data: its creation, management, aggregation, and use.

To understand the power and pitfalls of data science, we must attend to the data itself, not merely the algorithms that manipulate it. Feinberg explicates fundamental concepts of data that reveal the many tiny design decisions—which may not even seem like design at all—that shape how data comes to be. Through the themes of serendipity, objectivity, equivalence, interoperability, taxonomy, labels, and locality, she illuminates the surprisingly pervasive role of data in our daily thoughts and lives.

Dr. Melanie Feinberg, an associate professor at the UNC School of Information and Library Science (SILS), is a classificationist whose research approach combines design with the humanities. Her work focuses on learning how to read and write databases to complement our engineering and mining of them. She received her PhD in 2008 from the iSchool at the University of Washington; she has a master’s from the iSchool at Berkeley (2004) and was an undergraduate at Stanford (1992). In her professional career before returning to academia, she was a content strategist and technical editor, working at companies such as Apple Computer, Scient, and PeopleSoft.