& Urban Governance Research Collective

Critical social scientists interested in understanding the spatial governance and data justice implications of contemporary biosecurity measures.

Wastewater epidemiology.
Contact tracing. Zoonotic surveillance.
Spillover. Virus hunting.

Sewage surveillance. Contact tracing. Genomic data sharing.

All terms that have complex genealogies but have become increasingly commonplace during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. In this multifaceted project, we seek to understand the transformation and consolidation of biosecurity efforts across the globe at the current COVID-19 conjuncture.

What is Biosecurity?

What humans and animals are considered threats and why are particular animal populations routinely culled to protect (some) humans’ health?
How do biosecurity efforts target some concerns (like the migration of people) while invisibilizing more structural reasons for disease emergence and transmission (such as deforestation, the neoliberal decimation of healthcare systems, etc)?

Biosecurity, to geographer Bruce Braun (2007, p. 23), “names a global project that seeks to achieve certain biomolecular futures by pre-empting others” through the management of zoonotic, food-borne, invasive species, and infectious disease threats. With the COVID-19 pandemic, behavioral data (such as cellphone logs and flight records), and biological data (such as genomic sequencing of microbes) haves become increasingly important to both tracking and predicting disease outbreak – key forms of contemporary biosurveillance.

But biosecurity and biosurveillance are not apolitical or devoid of social forces; geographical imaginations are central to how people, plants, and animals are managed to reduce ‘threats.’ Ideas of contagion and spread (i.e. viral traffic) from South to North, from East to West, help constitute how and why particular biosurveillance mechanisms are rolled out (Hinchliffe et al., 2013). Such biosecurity efforts can reproduce economic, social, and political violence: they can result in border closings; closely regulate the movement of already-marginalized populations; legitimate punitive policing measures against certain populations; and undermine more caring forms of disease prevention.

How are biological materials being used for information and profit?
How is the collection of this data being incorporated into Smart City assemblages, and with what effects for urban governance and data justice?

Our Research

Our research program includes a variety of different projects related to the geographies of biosecurity, biosurveillance, contagion, and data sharing. Check out the projects below.

Political Ecologies of Bioinformation

Biotechnology companies are surveilling more-than-human life at unprecedented scales. In this project we use a political ecologies of data and health framework (Nost and Goldstein 2021) to understand the processes of abstraction that turn microbial and more-than-human life into data that can be analyzed, circulated, and consumed for biopolitical surveillance ends.

Wastewater-Based Epidemiology and Urban Governance

While wastewater-based epidemiology has existed for decades, this method of tracking disease has taken off in the COVID-19 pandemic and become increasingly normalized. In this project we inquire as to how wastewater data is being collected and made actionable in public health and urban governance.

Contagion in popular culture

Much of what we know, or think we know, about infectious disease and contagion comes from popular cultural artefacts such as movies, novels, and music. In this project, our team of faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students parse popular media – especially film – to analyze how contagion is represented, the kinds of geographical imaginaries they reproduce, and the anxieties they betray.

Genomic sequence data sharing across borders

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen many countries collecting and sharing genomic sequencing data on SARS-CoV-2 variants, sometimes resulting in punitive measures like border restrictions. In this project we interrogate the geographic unevenness of access to and benefits of sharing genomic data across borders.

Research Team

Carolyn Prouse

Principal Investigator
Queen’s University

Mahammed Rafi Arefin

Co-Principal Investigator
University of British Columbia

Josie Wittmer

Postdoctoral Fellow
Université de Lausanne

Dhiraj Nainani

Fellow
Nanyang Technological University

Amrita Nair

Research Assistant
University of British Columbia

Christopher Reimer

Research Assistant
University of British Columbia

Monique Assunção

Research Assistant
Queen’s University

Our research team is a group of critical social scientists interested in understanding the spatial governance and data justice implications of contemporary biosecurity measures. In other words, we study how biosecurity – specifically vis-à-vis pathogenic microbes – is a spatial practice that operates through racialized, classed, gendered, and neoliberal processes.

The Geographies of Biosecurity Research Team has multiple research projects with different team members working on each. We also host an international reading group called PHEBES, Political Health Ecologies of Biosecurity and Environmental Surveillance. Please get in touch if you’d like to be involved in any!

Contact

Funders

We would like to thank the generous funders who have supported this research program: