A few thoughts (and reading suggestions) on data and civil society

I had the chance to participate in Worldview Stanford's class on Data - it was an amazing cross disciplinary look at how digital data are changing the landscapes for learning, work, and society. Here are two fabulous charts from the sessions - thanks to Nancy Murphy and Stephanie Crowley for sharing.



A few days later I participated in a working session on the ethical use of digital data in civil society. We are focused on developing tools to facilitate ethical, safe, and effective working relationships between data scientists and nonprofits. We talked a lot about mission alignment, consent, privacy, role limits. We don't have public documents yet, but stay tuned. Big thanks to participants and partners, Data Science for Social Good and DataKind. What's rewarding for me in these discussions is we  seem to have learned a little something from the past. Rather than repeating "tech is the answer" hubris, I see a data science community that's trying to help nonprofits while recognizing the problematic values inherent in data and places where more harm might be done than good. Digital data are here to stay. To paraphrase Kenny Rogers, the challenge is knowing "when to hold them, when to fold them, and when to walk away."



This was the focus of my short comments at the Data On Purpose conference held at Stanford last week. Civil society - associations, individuals, nonprofits, foundations - need to focus on the "purpose" part of their use of digital resources. Nonprofits and foundations need to know how digital data are being used to frame and shape the landscapes in which they now work, and when and how they might use digital data to further their work. They have to put purpose first and align their practices with their values. A starting point is one of the core values of civil society, a space focused on individual choice in collective action, meaning informed and active consent. Respect people's rights to privacy while finding ways to produce public benefit. Neither of these alone will be enough*. It won't always work. But the values of surveilling governments and data-vacuuming corporations are NOT those of civil society, so it's safe to say their practices are also NOT the right ones.

I'm looking forward to speaking at the Media Impact Forum, along with Van Jones, Brewster Kahle, and Craig Newmark.

People still love analog books. The Lacuna project at the Bay Area Book Festival was an amazing, physical representation of how much we love books. Was really wonderful to walk in and out, through and back with lots of people oohing, aahing, laughing and reading.

Speaking of reading, read these:
Book Review on They Know Everything About You : How Data-Collecting Corporations and Snooping Government Agencies Are Destroying Democracy
Makes clear connection between individual privacy and democratic practice. 



*Solon Baracas and Helen Nissenbaum, Big Data's End Run Around Procedural Privacy Protections
Accessible to non-technologists, emphasizes social and technological importance and limitations of consent and de-identification as privacy-protecting mechanisms.

Privacy in the Modern Age: The Search for Solutions, Mark Rotenberg, Julia Horwitz, Jeramy Horowitz. Wonderful collection of short essays proposing solutions to the several ways digital data practices are eroding privacy.

Geek Heresy,  Kentaro Toyama. Toyama explains why technology amplifies existing disparities and doesn't lead to democracy, equality or social change. A familiar argument to many, his words carry the wisdom of experience and he speaks as a techno-solutionism apostate.




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