Speculative Data Futures Introduction: Current Realities & Future Imaginations

By Stefanie Felsberger and Yara Sultan

Visuals by Mohamed Gad

Our imagination often sets the limits of what we think is possible. The potential that technology and data have – for good or bad – in our lives, is inspired and limited by the narratives and stories about technology we hear and tell ourselves. We imagine what technology can do in our lives, based on what we hear on the news, see on TV, or read in sci-fi novels. These narratives tend to be one sided, as a center that works on Access to Knowledge, we understand the importance of writing one’s own stories. Access to Knowledge means more than having the means to access information or knowledge, but the right and ability to create and share knowledge that is relevant to one’s own local context. As such, this series of short pieces that each provide a different imagination of what technology and data can and cannot be is integral in providing a multifaceted imagination of the future.

We sought to encourage a new kind of engagement with technology and, specifically, open data. We asked our authors to push the boundaries of their own thinking and imagine what open data futures might look like in 40 to 50 years.

 We have chosen to explore open data futures through the medium of fictional short stories. Fictions here are not just stories but vehicles through which our authors experiment with scenarios, test values in action, and probe open data’s potential to create more equitable societies. As Ruha Benjamin states, “[s]uch fictions are not meant to convince others of what is, but to expand our own visions of what is possible.”[1] In order to be able to work towards making something a reality, we need to first find ways to imagine it. This is exactly what authors in our series do. Through the medium of speculative fiction we see unexpected consequences of open data projects unravel in front of our eyes, we witness the potential open data has, yet remain aware that more needs to be done.

The first speculative fiction novel by a Muslim was written in 1905 by a Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, a writer and reformer living in colonial India. In her book, Sultana’s Dream, Hossain imagines a world in which gender roles are reversed and uses this reversal to explore gender inequalities. A very recent example of Arabic speculative fiction is Ajwan, a science fiction novel written by Noura al Noman. Herself a fan of sci-fi and fantasy, al Norman decided to write her own sci-fi novel after realizing that the Arabic science fiction options available for her children were limited. Her book’s main character is a young alien who has to survive after her planet was destroyed. From Sultana’s Dream to Ajwan, Speculative fiction’s rich history often entwines with Islamic literature and the literature of the MENA region. This series draws on this history in order to open up new avenues for communicating our current realities.

With a focus on the MENA region, this collection aims to bring valuable insights to the impact that open data can have on women’s lived experiences in today’s cities. The potentialities for mobility, participation, and innovation in urban spaces will arguably be reshaped by the growing momentum of the Big Data and Open Data Movements. This kind of transformative phase warrants an engaged discussion on the interplay between open data and enhanced gendered experiences.

Yet despite the powerful impetus of the movement in a growing number of countries, tacitly pushing towards more an inclusive and participatory urban citizenry, few countries from the region have fully adopted the concept of open cities or a culture of free information sharing. With the particularities of the MENA region in mind, this collection explores the impact that technology and open data can have on the diverse range of women’s interactions and experiences in the urban space.

The three short pieces in this collection are an attempt at imagining different futures. Ones where open data is a nexus for spaces of possibility and potential, yet also a space of ever-evolving risks and ponderings over personal and collective rights. Premised in ever-expanding and crowding urban cities, the future citizens of our stories are positioned in elaborate encounters with other city dwellers over resources, space, as well as the rights to be heard, protected, and acknowledged.

The authors attempt to shed light on the experiences of three women in a futuristic Arab world. Their story lines place them in critical conversation with powerful emerging technologies, open information sharing systems and data-centered state policies. Their varied personal, political, and geographic experiences have them questioning, and at other times, revering the power and possibility of open data tools, as they attempt to carve out better futures for women in their cities, as well as beyond their immediate urban borders.

With stories ranging from war-recovered Syria to the occupied Palestinian territories to women’s everyday experiences in Cairo, the stories of these women touch upon the personal, the collective, and the political journeys of each. These gendered futuristic urban experiences thus imagine women positioned as both, individuals with subjective and personal needs, wants and desires, but also as members of a collective and communal momentum. A social reality whose members sometimes try to harnesses – and at others fight against- the growing power of technology and the tricky guise of open and personal information sharing. 

Our first contribution, Reclaiming Urban Spaces through Open Data in Palestine, is written by Marwa Fatafta, a researcher, policy analyst, and writer from Palestine. Fatafta’s piece invites us into the story of a group of women in Palestine and explores how they navigate the intersecting challenges of the occupation and the patriarchy as they play out in Palestine’s public spaces. The story explores the role open street mapping can have in demonstrating a growing need for safer public spaces for women as well as helping bring them together to re-claim their everyday presence and power on the streets. 

In our second contribution, Bahia Halawi, co-founder of a data analytics company,tells us the story of Karima, a Syrian refugee women. In Halawi’s story, Karima returns to a Syria in the future where reconstruction is driven by (open) data. The story is a utopian imagination of open data and artificial intelligence’s limitless potential but demonstrates also the pervasive lack of privacy that underpins such tech fantasies. The author also makes apparent why refugees serve as a testing ground for such technologies: among the most marginalized people, refugees’ most intimate information is collected and shared by so many international organizations and states with a disregard for their privacy rights. She also shows us different ways and opportunities in which accountability and transparency can be integrated into technological infrastructures, such as open data.

Would You Report? is our final contribution and was written by Lama Tawakol, a PhD researcher based in Ontario, Canada. Tawakol discusses the complexities of a government-led initiative to combat sexual harassment in Egypt 40 years in the future. The initiative asks women to report all instances of sexual harassment to a platform which is connected to the government’s open data base. Profiles of all men with reports are made available to everyone and intended to deter more harassment. The piece discusses the role of the state in achieving gender equality, questions who is truly women are benefiting from the initiative, and walks us through the choices each woman will have to make when faced with the dilemma of reporting.


[1] Ruha Benjamin. 2018. “Ferguson is the Future.” Presentation, Future Perfect Conference

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