Knowledge and governance in the digital age: The politics of monitoring planetary life
First Monday

Knowledge and governance in the digital age: The politics of monitoring planetary life by Robert Latham

Planetary phenomena, such as global climate change and transborder disease transmission, are increasing subject to monitoring aided by advances in surveillance and data processing technologies. The most powerful governments of the world, especially the United States, are building monitoring systems they can control. Communities and activists around the world face a fundamental choice: become involved in shaping those systems so they better serve the needs and interests of the world’s population or build their own independent, unofficial monitoring systems.


New actors and new technologies
The importance of the current moment
Governance and monitoring
The imperative of distributing monitoring capacity
Toward global monitoring norms
The relevant sectors




The nineteenth and twentieth centuries witnessed a remarkable transformation in governance at the national level: increasingly states in the West gained new capacities in the monitoring of their populations and made such capacities central to policy–making across an ever expanding and deepening range of social and economic life [1]. No longer content to merely count population or map physical resources, states began to monitor — aided by the new science of statistics — phenomena such as disease, industrial production, and poverty. We now take such data for granted at the national level in developed countries. Thanks to monitoring, states are able to develop and implement public policies based on substantial bodies of data.

Today we stand at the precipice of another remarkable transformation: the construction of information systems and databases to monitor a range of phenomena from the planetary environment to global finance that will profoundly shape the nature of governance at not just the global but also the national and local levels.

Who will determine the nature of such global monitoring systems (or GMS) regarding especially what is monitored, how monitoring takes place, and what the relationship between data and governance should be? How will it affect developing countries — which historically have had limited monitoring capacity — that are being drawn up into such efforts?

In the nineteenth and twentieth century transformation the range of actors involved in setting the course of monitoring and its role in governance was limited to state officials and a small number of scientific and industrial experts. Today, not only is the worldwide community of experts across universities and research institutes vast, and the diversity of private firms enormous, but civil society organizations are now capable of shaping developments in every relevant global sector.

The expansion in the number and range of relevant actors should not just be seen as a byproduct of a more complex world. It also is an opportunity to mobilize — on a far more democratic basis — experts, policy–makers, activists, and citizenries to identify and implement the most effective and equitable models for monitoring and to devise structures of governance on these new informational foundations. The challenge is to put in place the intellectual and human resources and construct the concrete models for building systems that can influence the course of global governance in the twenty–first century.

This essay outlines the starting points for thinking about the current moment in the production of information for governance, the relationship between governance and monitoring, and the stakes in terms of equity and human security in the building of GMS. It also suggests some initial steps that might be taken to build alliances to begin work in this area.



New actors and new technologies

An important force in the transformation of governance associated with the informational state described above was the rise of bureaucracy, which expanded its capabilities through new techniques of surveillance and the organization of information applied in administration and regulation. Similarly as the possibilities of governance at the global level emerged in the late nineteenth century, international bureaus were formed — such as the International Telegraph Union and International Labor Organization — that gathered and distributed data and generated statistics to inform the relevant members of the international community about their respective sectors. In fact, information gathering — including monitoring actions to assure compliance with treaties — and dissemination to state officials and the informed public were core activities of organizations that made surveillance a central element of regulation [2].

In the past, non–state actors, in particular firms, established elaborate information systems to help them govern their activities such as railroad service (Chandler, 1977). That is to say non–state actors — above all large firms — gained capabilities from organizational advances that are not unlike the advances made by the bureaucratizing state: these include the formation of large–scale information gathering and processing staffs such as accounting and market research departments that reached their peak in the decades after World War II (Beniger, 1986). More recently, firms have been organizing themselves into worldwide networks of multiple firms that allow for sharing information and knowledge across regions (Ernst, 2005). NGOs have also exploited the economies that network–based sharing offer to take some command of information in areas from human rights to the environment (Keck and Sikkink, 1998).

These networks have made possible a new development: non–state actors — especially private firms — are able to participate in processes that generate data about phenomena of general, public interest ...

These networks have made possible a new development: non–state actors — especially private firms — are able to participate in processes that generate data about phenomena of general, public interest (rather than data specific to their more limited range of activities), whether that is tracking worldwide deforestation or trends in consumption. Although attention today to the growing informational capabilities of non–state actors may create a sense that this is a recent development it has been in the making for decades: as early as the 1970s it was observed by former CIA director William Colby that the “proliferation of information banks and analytical centers for investment counseling, political risk assessments and ‘futures’ estimates are witness to the growth of the intelligence discipline outside traditional government circles.” [3]

Organizational innovations — be they bureaucratic or network — are only part of the story. The other part are the advances in digital technologies that allow actors to gather, process, organize, display, and share information (both text and pictures) in ways that are unprecedented. From satellite–based Earth remote sensing and real–time access to current financial transaction data, to geographical information systems accessible by local community activists, a whole new range of informational techniques have been opened up to state and nonstate actors alike.



The importance of the current moment

The advance in digital technologies is one reason special attention to the development of GMS is urgent. We are at a point where such systems are possible and are in formation in many sectors. One example from the environmental sector is the current construction, led by the U.S. government, of an Integrated Earth Observation System that will integrate observation data across a range of geophysical aspects of the planet. Before systems such as this become operational and are locked–in as to their purposes and functionality, it is essential to ensure that they are designed to serve effectively and justly the interests of the widest number communities and publics around the world.

Another reason for the urgency in focusing on such systems is that many sectors are at critical junctures in their governance. Alarming patterns of global climate change, risks of future financial crises reminiscent of the Asian crisis and persistent levels of global inequality, devastation of whole societies due to the spread of HIV/AIDS, and new challenges to human rights due to the worldwide war on terror are among the conditions currently weighing on structures of global governance. More generally, two decades of rising interdependence and flows across national borders have not only led to a growing awareness of globalization, but also to increased demand for better forms of governance at the global level, especially as risks are rendered more visible in a world of more permeable borders (Beck, 1992). Claims about global risks — and even what globalization means — are made based on data about trade, migration, climate, disease, and global communications.

Without an effective capacity to identify and track changes in relevant sectors on multiple scales from the local to the global — as well as monitor compliance — there is little likelihood that current governance efforts can succeed or, more importantly, new forms and mechanisms of governance can be innovated. The pursuit of global environmental governance, for example, requires an understanding of the impacts of climate change at regional and local levels so that specific policies can be put in place at those levels. Similarly, monitoring trends in healthcare provision in developing countries is necessary to deploy aid and track the trajectory of deadly diseases. In this respect, monitoring capacity not only is an essential aspect of extant patterns and structures of governance, it also can open up possibilities for the development and support of innovations in governance, as policy–makers and observers newly identify trends and look at problems differently through novel aggregations and visualizations of data. For example, global data on HIV/AIDs led to the observation that the disease was spreading fastest in the developing world, as opposed to the developed world, which previously had received most attention. This opened the way for changes in intervention strategies.



Governance and monitoring

To appreciate the close relationship between governance and monitoring it is necessary to consider what governance is, especially in a global context. It is meaningless to class all forms of political activity in a given sphere or at a certain level as governance (even if they have significant implications for governance). Governance is not about founding new institutions or political entities, or transforming or even destroying existing entities. It is not about building political support or legitimacy or constructing alliances. If we take seriously the historical uses of the term, it refers to the activities of decision–makers, administrators, or boards as they manage or administer the activities of their organizations or those of the people and things for which they assume responsibility [4]. To steer is the original fourteenth century meaning of the term, to govern, and this meaning remains salient today when trying to distinguish it from other types of political activity. Governing involves regulating, guiding, and mediating the actions and interactions of people and things so they follow along a course and pathway.

Governance is inherently about the sustainability of the pathway, as actions and interactions are adjusted and steered based on the purposes and norms that define the pathway. Governing an economy for us today means balancing contending interests (e.g., higher wage income), demands (e.g., industry protection), and conditions (e.g., inflation), among other things, so that the purposes of the meeting of human needs and the norms of growth and distribution are addressed. The forces in play along a pathway are typically complex — with a “large number of parts that have many interactions” [5] — and are not subject to total control (such control would obviate the need for governance). The course of a pathway thus is not predetermined (visible most easily in hindsight) as interactions and interventions along the way can shift it in unpredictable ways.

Complexity means that information and monitoring capacity regarding actions and interactions along a given pathway is essential to governance. Information is not only necessary for helping governors understand the historical trajectory of a pathway and the forces and interaction within it (that is, to be knowledgeable about it), but also to measure the degree to which purposes are being achieved and how closely norms are being adhered to. This was the core contribution of cybernetics offered in the middle of the twentieth century. Information reveals how wide a pathway is (that is, how much of physical and social life is drawn up into it), how deep it is (that is, how extensively it shapes that life) and what the switching points are as significant change — due to factors both internal and external to the pathway — moves a pathway upon new terrain.

Complexity also means that complete information is impossible (not only because of the intricacies of interactions, but also because of the inability to predict actions and interactions in any meaningfully comprehensive way). Rather than reduce the salience of information for governance this impossibility raises it. Information systems themselves will need to be complex enough to provide as much information as possible about a diversity of interactions and conditions to as many actors as possible. Yet they will need to be simple enough to facilitate wide participation in them.



The imperative of distributing monitoring capacity

One analyst of governance, Elinor Ostrom [6], has pointed out that in the absence of a centralized governance system operating with complete information, monitoring is most effective as a cooperative endeavor, where actors in a given sphere of activity are supplying information and monitoring themselves and others. The spheres Ostrom focuses on are important, but limited and relatively contained, such as local fishing waters. The question is does the same effectiveness apply on a global scale? If it does then how can the limited opportunity for less powerful actors to participate directly — because of their lack of global resources and reach — be overcome.

Self-monitoring and governance have long been a core norm of private firms operating in national and international contexts. Although debate persists as to the merits of self–governance, there are failures notable enough to bring it into question, especially when a sector is populated with very powerful private and public actors — such recent failures include the lack of privacy protection on the Internet and the unwillingness of financial firms to protect investor interests in the U.S. mutual fund industry. The alternative to a relatively narrow base of self–governing actors in a global context need not be limited to a centralized, hierarchical system. A third alternative is a distributed system, which draws in a far wider range of actors than those that are the most powerful.

As suggested above, distributed monitoring capacity already exists to some degree in various national and international sectors. Consumer watchdog groups, human rights organizations, fair trade advocates, environmental activists are among the actors — in addition to independent research institutes — that challenge official data and assessments with their own in various sectors regarding issues such as product safety, free speech, poverty, and environmental degradation. Clearly, the opposition of official data with non–official data is a good in and of itself, if it challenges official governance to be more inclusive, accurate, and transparent — an attractive option in any political and social context. However, two questions emerge: can non–state, civil society, actors (academic and non–academic) obtain the resources and develop the political momentum to construct the sort large–scale data systems that can significantly help determine the governance of a sector especially on a global basis? And, whether or not such independent systems can be constructed, should not civil society actors also be engaged in shaping the data systems that are official and which involve the most powerful international actors? These two questions are intertwined, in that it may not be possible to shape official data systems without the non–official data that can challenge it. If so, this means civil society has a threefold responsibility — to foster a) independent knowledge capacities; b) meaningful participation in official projects; and, c) links between official and unofficial information [7].

How far should distribution go? If it only goes as far as the large international NGOs and institutes then it goes not very far at all. If a wide range of locally based actors are drawn in as sources of data, then the distributive possibilities are substantial. The example of the World Resource Institute’s Global Forest Watch ( stands out as an example of a widely distributed database that relies among other things on local research partners around the world to supply data that is uplinked via satellite to the database.

At stake in wider distributive capacities are three things. The most obvious is the opportunity to make information systems intelligent. Local data sources should be able to adjust, correct, and interact regularly with one another and forces in their environments to produce at successively higher levels of aggregation (from local and national to regional and global) dynamic, real–time databases. The key to this process is the ability of data producers to make constant both learning (of techniques, strategies, and developments from other producers) and observation (of new occurrences and trends in their environment). Aspects of this type of aggregative dynamism are, in principle, built into the emerging automated GMS one finds especially in the environmental sector, where satellites or ground stations provide constant data feeds from around the world. However, such data networks do not allow for the learning capability that distributed human data production allows.

Because data is increasingly central to making claims about the nature and implications of conditions in a sector it is inherently a site of political contestation.

A second thing at stake in distributive capacities is that they can serve as a wedge through which governance structures more generally might be transformed to reflect: 1. influential participation by a broad range of actors who do not represent elite firms and OECD governments; and, 2. effective articulation of the interests of communities around the world that are typically marginalized. The channel for this wedge would be the “politics of information.” Because data is increasingly central to making claims about the nature and implications of conditions in a sector it is inherently a site of political contestation. What counts as environmental degradation? Should data on financial derivative transactions between two financial firms occurring across national boundaries be made public (especially if the monies involved are from public agencies like pension funds)? How would privacy protection software be applied to databases on individual consumption habits that are kept by credit card companies? Who should verify health care delivery reports by governments and how do you link locally generated data on mortality rates and survival rates with those reports? Should governments be required to collect and pool data on their surveillance activities? The techno–political discussions around such questions are really contests about the nature of governance — a point made all the more salient by the recognition that in sectors such as the environment and security monitoring is the key mechanism of governance.

The use of monitoring as a wedge to shape the politics of governance moves in two directions — not only from communities and civil society organizations as a means to seek social justice, but also from governments and other powerful entities as a means impose distributive outcomes they prefer. As monitoring capacities mature it is likely that global databases will increasingly become the basis of aid and the division of resources (data already plays a significant role). The recent announcement by the Bush Administration that USAID monies will be awarded based on data and assessments regarding the good governance capacities of countries portends the prospects ahead. Hints at how far this sort of use of data can go are suggested by the deep politics in the U.S. associated with the census that not only determines aid and entitlements to states and localities, but also structures of political power (as the controversy over redistricting of congressional seats demonstrates).

Finally, the politics of governance inherent in distributed monitoring capacities can help us think through new approaches to democracy at the global level. Typically, democracy is conceived in global terms according to various forms of representation across geographical (local to global) and functional (from NGOs to associations) spectrums (Held, 1995). Instead of models of representative democracy, distributive capacities suggest that models of direct democracy might be more appropriate. But rather than direct democracy in its classic guise as popular deliberation around and participation in formal political decisions, what is at stake here is the potential to open up a new field of action for non–elites to exercise expanded political influence through their collaboration in the generation of knowledge that directly bears on their lives. Wide participation in the production, distribution, and use of data would need to rest on a compelling articulation of the purposes of such data: that is, on making clear the links between monitoring and the governance of social and political life. Once monitoring obtains the salience it deserves, a second political dimension emerges around the issue of how to establish a direct democratic approach to the governance of global monitoring processes.

Is it too much to expect social movements to emerge around the demand to “democratize the databases?”

Is it too much to expect social movements to emerge around the demand to “democratize the databases?” It will not likely happen because of some general acknowledgment of the importance of monitoring but because activists working in a sector such as health recognize its importance to policy and governance in that sector. Only then will it be plausible to anticipate that as GMS continue to develop a growing number of activists will seek to open up such systems to wider participation in order to ensure that they are constituted in just and effective ways.

Further analysis will need to address what the implications are for: 1) relations of power across public and private realms operating globally, regionally, nationally, and locally; and, 2) forms of conflict that might arise between constituencies well entrenched around monitoring and those constituencies that are just emerging.

At the same time, we need political theory and language to think through in new ways the relationship between knowledge, governance, and democracy along distributed lines. The classic equation — that citizenries must be well informed to ensure robust democratic practice — is no longer sufficient.



Toward global monitoring norms

However much expanded participation is promoted, the political and social return on the investment in it will likely be limited without clear models that can be implemented to produce transparent and reliable data in GMS that are equitable and just. Such models will need to ensure that GMS are:

  • open rather than closed: meaning that there exist robust channels for shaping the systems that are available to a multitude of actors and that the logics and infrastructures of the systems are legible and thus transparent (from software code to data categories).
  • flexible rather than rigid: meaning that the systems can effectively absorb the input of multiple actors on a constant basis and are thereby responsive to demands and change.
  • distributed rather than concentrated in benefits: meaning that the welfare of the widest range of actors, communities, and individuals around the world is directly and indirectly increased by the operation of the systems.
  • bumpy and heterogeneous rather than smooth and homogeneous: meaning that the monitoring efforts and data represent and convey local variation and do not reduce such diversity into general data categories (while still allowing for global aggregates). Data should be collected and organized according to varying scales from local and national to regional and global (allowing for use in governance at those levels).
  • The above set of core characteristics is only a starting point for identifying the many normative and organizational challenges that lie ahead in building just GMS. Others include the tensions inherent in the world of transnational civil society organizations (CSOs) that is not homogeneous — above all, associated with the North–South divide. It is far from clear how Southern CSOs will be able to participate on equal terms with Northern ones in the production and use of data and avoid being drawn up into Northern agendas and framings — from portals to discourses — that fail to represent Southern perspectives on their own terms. Related are the divisions between experts and non–experts. To the extent that GMS development favors the engagement of experts it sets up a divide that may well limit wider participation of organizations and communities that lacking what is viewed as expertise.

    Similarly, the world of states cannot be treated homogeneously. Governments of developed and developing countries, as recent divisions over trade and economic integration show, can view governance and knowledge in quite different ways. Developing country governments will be quite naturally suspicious of any GMS that appear to be serving the interests of Northern governments. This tension is compounded by the fact that Southern governments — facing more limited data gathering capacities — may feel put upon by Northern governments and international organizations that are demanding reliable data from them, as is currently the case in sectors such as global finance (where reliable national economic statistics are sought). It will be essential for global monitoring not to be associated with any one government or set of governments and for data collection training programs or technological transfers not to be structured in a top–down fashion (recent experience in the IT and development area may be useful).

    Designers will also have to contend with the classic tension between the demand for maximal information on an issue (through ever more data collection or optimal processing) and the willingness to “satisfice” by using an existing level of data to make governance decisions. The call for more and better data can be used to prevent action as environmental activists have learned in dealing with U.S. administration policy on global warming. Another tension is between building social purpose into a system (e.g., maximizing technological diffusion) — which requires establishing strong boundaries and dedicated goals — and allowing for considerable openness and flexibility — where social purpose is a function of current demands (Latham, 2003). Also, while designers have to carefully craft models that create incentives across the monitoring chain for producers to incorporate the most valid and verifiable data, they will need to guard against the emergence of a single criterion of accuracy that might be used to prevent innovation in data production (and thereby limit system openness and flexibility).

    There is the question of how much governance should be incorporated directly into GMS. Early warning capacities and automatic demands for actors to adjust activity (such as strip mining or intrusive communications surveillance) are two examples of how governance can be directly built into GMS (that otherwise might be called “global electronic governance systems”). Another example is Amnesty International that began — in the early 1960s — as an effort to gather information about political prisoners around the world. In a short time Amnesty International transformed into a lobbying effort, as letter–writing campaigns pressed for their release. The problem with incorporating governance activity directly into GMS is that — similar to building social purpose in — it risks limiting opportunities for communities to arrive at governance decisions through a mix of political mechanisms at various levels, local to global.

    All of these challenges and tensions underscore that monitoring is not inherently a good. Even with the best of initial intentions monitoring systems can be used intrusively as a means of disciplining “the monitored” ...

    Finally, no GMS program can afford to ignore the question of how to ensure that data is used by policy–makers. While, as argued above, knowledge has always been an essential dimension of governance, the nature and strength of such links depend on the lines of conflict and cooperation that exist around governance projects. On the one hand, participants — as lessons from the global warming controversy suggest (Edwards, 1997) — will need to devise strategies so that it is difficult and politically costly to ignore data. On the other, they will have to seek out alliances and modes collaboration across the worlds of civil society, business, and government that may not come easily [8].

    All of these challenges and tensions underscore that monitoring is not inherently a good. Even with the best of initial intentions monitoring systems can be used intrusively as a means of disciplining “the monitored” which in many cases might be local communities and they can further tax the limited resources of developing societies. Since such systems will emerge in one form or another it is imperative that norms of justice and fairness are applied to monitoring and that systems consistent with such norms are identified.



    The relevant sectors

    Five core sectors stand out as critical areas of work on GMS and more broadly on governance and knowledge: the environment, security, personal data/digital identity, global finance, and public health. In the environmental sector monitoring of sorts began in the nineteenth century through efforts of the International Meteorological Organization (which became the World Meteorological Organization,, in 1950). After World War II advances in calculation, modeling, Earth Science, and satellite and computer technology allowed for sophisticated monitoring efforts (Edwards, 1997). Data gathering and modeling in this sector represents in the estimation of one observer the “largest research project in human history.” [9] Despite this extensive history of activity, no organized GMS exists incorporating the many dimensions of the environment and integrating ground and satellite data and still many aspects of the environment are seriously under monitored such as the oceans. The recent effort of the U.S. to organize such a system — the Integrated Earth Observation System, or IEOS [10] — is controversial in that developing countries and NGOs fear such as system would not be open or designed to address their concerns regarding the environment (Dauenhauer, 2003).

    Whereas the environmental sector has had the advantage of substantial participation by scientists, the security sector has been dominated by the efforts of intelligence agencies to spy worldwide. Recent descriptions of the massive global surveillance system named “Echelon” detail extensive data collection and processing capacities applied especially to electronic communications (Landau, 2003). Efforts are also underway by the U.S. to construct a comprehensive “global information grid” that joins military, political, social and geographical information in an integrated and easily accessible system to be used on and off the battlefield (Latham, 2003). More public security information efforts involve attempts by social scientists funded by the CIA to identify the key factors in failing states with large–scale multivariate databases and analysis (Gurr, et al., 2003). Operating in the security realm also are civil society–based monitoring efforts that include the tracking of weaponry (notably undertaken by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute or SIPRI at, of state–sourced info–warfare and censoring (Infowar Monitoring Project at, and of children in armed conflict in Africa (a project organized and managed at the Social Science Research Council; see Of further interest is the question of whether some of the technical advances — in areas such as interoperability associated with systems such Echelon — can be harnessed by civil society actors to advance the public interest (not unlike the way Internet technologies moved out from the military to civil realms).

    The third sector — personal data/digital identity — has been dominated by firms. Vast amounts of personal identity information are collected and processed including home addresses, physical attributes, biometrics such as fingerprints, health records, purchases, organizational memberships, Internet activity, and physical location (via GPS data). This data is being organized not only for direct use by the collectors of this information, whether it be credit card or insurance companies, but for resale to other firms and governments. There are already two notable competing efforts underway to fully commercialize and standardize access to such data: one led by Microsoft, the other by Sun. It is far from clear how individuals will be able to assert control over their personal information and digital identity or whether institutions can be constructed that enforce just and fair standards for identity data usage on the Internet. Concerns about such databases have been amplified after September 11 as individuals are increasingly confronted by challenges to privacy in the name of security. In positive terms, there are possibilities for emerging civil society visions of digital identity that take advantage of these new technologies.

    Receiving a great deal of attention over the last decade because of its close association with globalization — and with financial crises in Mexico, Russia, and across Asia — is the global finance sector. The magnitude of global, electronically facilitated, currency flows is an impressive daily US$1.2 trillion (last BIS estimate); and other markets, such as those for financial derivatives are also in the hundreds of trillions annually. While international financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank have focused on increasing transparency and the reliability of national economic data supplied by governments (through efforts such as the General Data Dissemination System), there has been no real effort to make available and transparent the specifics of transborder financial flows, even though it appears central bankers have such data. Such data could aid developing countries in understanding better the patterns and structures of global flows and make transparent to public institutions and individuals how their monies are being used and to what risks they are subject. The publication of transborder financial data can also be used to help build support for the taxing of financial flows (e.g., the Tobin tax).

    Like the environmental sector the fifth sector, public health, has a history reaching back a century with the founding of international organizations such as the International Sanitary Bureau (1902) in the Americas and the International Office of Public Hygiene (1907) in Europe. Facilitating the monitoring of disease — above all at national borders — was a central task of these organizations. After World War II the World Health Organization continued and expanded monitoring efforts, as it endeavored to expand the capacity of governments to track disease within their borders. Today, there are a number of disease surveillance efforts, including the WHO’s effort to build surveillance capacity throughout the developing world (Field Epidemiology Training Programs) and its Communicable Disease Surveillance and Response program, the U.S. Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) International Emerging Infections Program, and the EU’s Eurosurveillance. The CDC has been building a National Electronic Disease Surveillance System that allows for real–time reporting and access capacities in the U.S. It is quite likely that the development of such surveillance systems will continue. The question is whether they will incorporate the full range of factors relevant to public health, including the provision of and access to healthcare, patterns of success and failure in a variety of changing populations from migrants to local income households. And will they be able to take account of the important diversity of cultural contexts of disease and healthcare?




    There are two assumptions at the core of this essay: that monitoring is central to governance in a range of sectors from the environment to public health; and that GMS can be designed that are effective, reliable, and just. To arrive at such designs two key tasks are necessary: to construct operational blueprints for such GMS that facilitate wide participation — in both production and use — by being open, flexible, distributed, and heterogeneous; and, to build the networks of organizations and individuals that can construct such blueprints and sustain their development.

    Getting this work underway is urgent. Systems of one form or another are, or will be, in formation — lock–in of limited and restrictive approaches and lock–out of broad participation must be prevented. Such urgency does not favor the luxury of decades of study. Innovative blueprints need to be developed now, based on knowledge and capabilities that currently exist or can be innovated over the near term. Such blueprints will specify strategies and methods for data gathering, sets of standards that address the normative issues described above, techniques and logics for integrating and aggregating data and for its presentation and visualization. Efforts of this sort can build on relevant past and current efforts underway among governmental organizations (such as the EU INSPIRE initiative), NGOs (such as InfoWar Monitoring), researchers (such as the geographers involved in Public Participation GIS research), and firms (such as the effort to build a personal data system by Sun Microsystems). End of article


    About the author

    Robert Latham is Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Centre for International and Security Studies at York University in Toronto Canada. He previously was a Visiting Fellow at the Transnationalism Project at the University of Chicago. Between 1999 and 2005 he was Director of the Information Technology and International Cooperation program at the Social Science Research Council. The program sought to advance research on the ways changes in information technology are transforming non–profits, governments and firms worldwide and creating new transnational knowledge networks. Among his publications are Digital Formations: IT and New Architectures in the Global Realm (co–edited with Saskia Sassen and published by Princeton University Press in 2005); Bombs and Bandwidth: The Emerging Relationship Between Information Technology and Security (published by New Press in 2003); and, The Politics of Open Source Adoption (co–edited with Joe Karaganis and published by the Social Science Research Council in 2005).



    1. Scott, 1998, pp. 90–102.

    2. Murphy 1994, pp. 111, 114.

    3. Quoted in Mulgan, 1991, p. 78.

    4. Latham 1999, p. 25.

    5. Simon, 1996, pp. 183–184.

    6. Ostrom, 1990, pp. 94–100.

    7. These are challenges firms have been addressing for decades.

    8. See Latour (1987) on the importance of alliances.

    9. Liftin, 1999, p. 75.

    10. Interagency Working Group on Earth Observations on the National Science and Technology Council Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, 2005. Strategic Plan for the U.S. Integrated Earth Observation System. Washington, D.C.: National Science and Technology Council Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, at



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    Herbert A. Simon, 1969. The sciences of the artificial. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

    Editorial history

    Paper received 28 April 2006; accepted 15 July 2006.

    Contents Index

    Copyright ©2006, First Monday.

    Copyright ©2006, Robert Latham.

    Knowledge and governance in the digital age: The politics of monitoring planetary life by Robert Latham
    First Monday, volume 11, number 9 (September 2006),

    A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

    © First Monday, 1995-2017. ISSN 1396-0466.