Digital Tech & Urban Public Health: Promises, Challenges & Possibilities

By Benjamin Hanckel and Shayda Kashef

Posted on 1st July 2019

On 13th June 2019 the Social Science and Urban Public Health Institute (SUPHI) at King’s College London hosted a special in-conversation event with Professor Deborah Lupton. The event examined the increasingly important role that digital technologies are playing in the urban public health landscape.

The event began with an introduction by Professor Judith Green, who emphasised how crucial it is to have spaces like this where we can critically engage with emerging digital technologies, and their impact on urban public health.

Dr Benjamin Hanckel, who facilitated the conversation, began by asking Professor Lupton to reflect on her work in the field of digital health. Professor Lupton discussed how digital technologies are changing health practices, and the important role research plays in helping us to understand how people interact with everyday technologies for health. She reminded us that the use of Google Search remains a key tool for accessing health information.

Central to Professor Lupton’s current work in digital health is her work on ‘post-qualitative enquiry’. Post-qualitative enquiry draws on new feminist materialist scholars, such as Karen Barad, Jane Bennett, Donna Haraway and Rosi Braidotti, and aims to surface complex assemblages of technologies, people, practices and policies, as they come together in everyday spaces. The post-qualitative approach, as envisaged by Prof Lupton, considers technologies in the contexts of their use, using innovative methods (e.g. arts-based, narrative methods) to surface these entanglements, which Professor Lupton is working on at the new Vitalities Lab at UNSW.

Smart City Imaginaries

Professor Lupton discussed how post-qualitative enquiry can help us to better understand the role of digital technologies in urban spaces. Drawing on her recent work on smart cities in Australia, she explained how this approach can illuminate and help us better understand components of smart cities – such as the invisible labour of device installation, how smart cities can challenge the role of the ‘active citizen’, and the social justice issues that emerge in regards to monitoring bodies.

Professor Lupton argued that a focus on the future of smart cities – smart city imaginaries – requires further sociological inquiry, where researchers are well placed to act as ‘provocateurs’ to address and discuss these concerns.

Personal Data

Understanding digital technologies in urban public health requires further reflection on the collection, use and conceptualisation of our personal data. Professor Lupton indicated how these themes are explored in her forthcoming book ‘Data Selves’. In this book, she explained, she builds on her concept of ‘lively data’ to explore human-data assemblages in practice, arguing that we need to rethink personal data as akin to physical human data, pushing back against the common notion of wanting to dematerialise human data. This she argues requires considering data in new ways. In her work, Professor Lupton indicated how she has found it productive to think about data as ‘human remains’ which alerts us to how data can be reconfigured, and the implications of this reconfiguration.

Professor Lupton’s ongoing work highlights the crucial role of sociological inquiry in better understanding how digital technologies are (re)configuring contemporary urban public health settings.

This seminar was hosted by the Social Science and Urban Public Health Institute (SUPHI) at King’s College London, and supported by the PLuS Alliance.

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