Data as an open relationship (with boundaries)

Yim Register (they/them)
5 min readOct 19, 2020


This one is for the non-monogamous, polyamorous, questioning academics out there, who can relate to the framework of polyamory as a way to describe “open data”.

Yesterday my brain was inspired by Yanni Alexander Loukiassas asking the question:

“what is ‘open’ in relationship to data?”

Yanni is a professor of Digital Media at Georgia Institute of Technology, and we got to meet at the CSCW Toward Equitable Participatory Design: Data Feminism for CSCW amidst Multiple Pandemics. We each brought a story and a question, and my brain got stuck on Yanni’s.

Lately in academic spaces we are all seemingly supposed to nod vigorously when someone says “open data!”. Yes, yes, open data for all! In our workshop group, we joked a bit about “for all” and “for the people” and other vague phrases that all of us fall into either as academics or just humans trying to generalize about the world. “Open data” seems to be one of those phrases that seems great but needs some boundaries that are clearly defined (like most things!)

I couldn’t help but draw parallels between open relationships and open data. Being polyamorous doesn’t mean “I date everyone and do whatever I want whenever I want!” It’s actually a carefully communicated and intentionally practiced way of sharing relationships and love. There are shapes to different polyamorous relationships, and different groups have different comfort levels. Every polyamorous web (sometimes called a polycule) has rules and boundaries that everyone in the web is committed. This could be things like committing to “Kitchen Table Polyamory” (my favorite), where all partners and their partners should be able to be comfortable enough with each other to sit around a kitchen table for brunch, and it’s often the more the merrier. Other webs are more closed or private, or might be something like a closed triad where it is three people in a committed relationship and nobody dates anybody else.

This piece is certainly not to convince you that polyamory is better than monogamy or anything (though just like queerness, we are automatically put into default boxes of straight and monogamous when we enter society, despite there being lots of other options). This piece is just to draw on some connections I made between polyamory and drawing boundaries around how we distribute and use “open data”.

What is “open data”?

I’m drawing on this particular guide: The Open Data Handbook. According to the handbook, open data is available and accessible (usually through download on the internet for little or no cost), must permit re-use and re-distribution, and allows for universal participation (no restrictions on who can use it). There are lots of reasons to open up our data! Within academia, we might be able to solve some of our replication crises by opening and sharing more data. Access to government data could allow us to keep our governments accountable, empower ourselves with more knowledge, and get answers to important questions we would never have been able to answer on our own. There is so much data and we often are “re-inventing the wheel”, using resources to do something that someone has already done, but we couldn’t get access to the data. Open data could keep us more accountable to each other and the rigor of our research, and could allow for non-academics to participate in innovation. There are lots of great things about open data (and open software).

But all data is contextual*

*ahem data is :D

But Yanni brought up this idea of “data settings” and “data contexts”. He elaborates more on that in his book All Data Are Local, where he argues:

“We should approach data sets with an awareness that data are created by humans and their dutiful machines, at a time, in a place, with the instruments at hand, for audiences that are conditioned to receive them.”

From my very brief conversations with him about this, he seemed to present the ideas that some data is not interpretable if you are not privvy to the same knowledge of those who collected it. Data has a complex relationship to the people and places from which it was collected. Another thing we discussed in the workshop was participatory research and building relationships between researcher and participant, specifically with the goal to recirculate findings and data back into the hands of the participants, with lots of pathways for them to participate in the research design in the first place. So if we get that part right, then how generalizable is all this data we are “opening up”? Should anyone and everyone really have access to LGBTQ experiences or Indigenous statistics? Especially given mistakes and privacy concerns, opening our data is not as simple as we often make it sound. The answer might still be “yes! open data for all!”. I’m not necessarily arguing against that. I’m just drawing on my own knowledge of how “open relationships” are not a free for all.

How does this relate to polyamory?

Here is a short introduction to polyamory and what it even is: What is Polyamory? A basic introduction to ethical non-monogamy and loving more. Included in that article is the discussion of different polyamorous shapes:

Some examples of polyamorous shapes, like Vs, triads or closed webs.
Another example of different shapes, commitments, boundaries, and roles, including co-parenting, nonsexual relationships, long distance connection, etc.

Each poly configuration is different and carefully communicated to all involved. Feelings can get hurt, boundaries can get crossed, and it’s not all about sex. It is about commitments and intimacy between different individuals, who are all hopefully working on themselves in different ways. “Open” is misleading when it comes to open relationships. There are parts of polyamory that are certainly more open than monogamous partnerships: the freedom to date, have sex, share emotional intimacy and time outside of a single partnership. Ethical non-monogamy is a self-exploration as well as lots of trial and error into what works for the individuals involved.

What if we introduced open data shapes?

So what if we introduced open data shapes too? Should this be a closed triad? Should we all have the commitment to share with one another what we found, in an easily traceable way if you’re using the same dataset? Is there a hierarchy? Would someone’s findings be seen as more credible than another? Is there someone who has the responsibility to maintain it, host it, or answer questions (a primary ‘owner’)? Are there boundaries on what we use that data for? Maybe it’s okay to use for urban planning but not for incarceration or law enforcement. What are our boundaries and commitments around this open data, and how do we communicate them with one another?

I think polyamory has a lot to teach us.



Yim Register (they/them)

Attending PhD School. Radical optimist. Machine learning literacy for self-advocacy and algorithmic resistance