My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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New White House Report on Big Data

I’m delighted to see that the White House has just released its report on “big data” — “Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values” along with an amazing collection of supporting documents. This report is the culmination of a 90-day review by the Administration, spearheaded by Counselor John Podesta. I’ve had the fortune to be a part of this process and have worked hard to share what I know with Podesta and his team.

In January, shortly after the President announced his intention to reflect on the role of big data and privacy in society, I received a phone call from Nicole Wong at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, asking if I’d help run one of the three public conferences that the Administration hoped to co-host as part of this review. Although I was about to embark on a book tour, I enthusiastically agreed, both because the goal of the project aligned brilliantly with what I was hoping to achieve with my new Data & Society Research Institute and also because one does not say no when asked to help Nicole (or the President). We hadn’t intended to publicly launch Data & Society until June nor did we have all of the infrastructure necessary to run a large-scale event, but we had passion and gumption so we teamed up with the great folks at New York University’s Information Law Institute (directed by the amazing Helen Nissenbaum) and called on all sorts of friends and collaborators to help us out. It was a bit crazy at times, but we did it.

In under six weeks, our amazing team produced six guiding documents and crafted a phenomenal event called The Social, Cultural & Ethical Dimensions of “Big Data.” On our conference page, you can find an event summary, videos of the sessions, copies of the workshop primers and discussion notes, a zip file of important references, and documents that list participants, the schedule, and production team. This amazing event was made possible through the generous gifts and institutional support of: Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Ford Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Microsoft Research, and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. (These funds were not solicited or collected on behalf of the Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP), or the White House. Acknowledgment of a contributor by the Data & Society Research Institute does not constitute an endorsement by OSTP or the White House.) Outcomes from this event will help inform the National Science Foundation-supported Council on Social, Legal, and Ethical aspects of Big Data (spearheaded by the conference’s steering committee: danah boyd, Geoffrey C. Bowker, Kate Crawford, and Helen Nissenbaum). And, of course, the event we hosted help shape the report that was released today.

Words cannot express how grateful I am to see the Administration seriously reflect on the issues of discrimination and power asymmetries as they grapple with both the potential benefits and consequences of data-centric technological development. Discrimination is a tricky issue, both because of its implications on individuals and because of what it means for society as a whole. In teasing out the issues of discrimination and big data, my colleague Solon Barocas pointed me to this fantastic quote by Alistair Croll:

Perhaps the biggest threat that a data-driven world presents is an ethical one. Our social safety net is woven on uncertainty. We have welfare, insurance, and other institutions precisely because we can’t tell what’s going to happen — so we amortize that risk across shared resources. The better we are at predicting the future, the less we’ll be willing to share our fates with others.

Navigating the messiness of “big data” requires going beyond common frames of public vs. private, collection vs. usage. Much to my frustration, the conversation around the “big data” phenomenon tends to get quickly polarized – it’s good or it’s bad, plain and simple. But it’s never that simple. The same tools that streamline certain practices and benefit certain individuals can have serious repercussions for other people and for our society as a whole. As the quote above hints at, what’s at stake is the very essence of our societal fabric. Building a healthy society in a data-centric world requires keeping one eye on the opportunities and one eye on the potential risks. While it’s not perfect, the report from the White House did a darn good job of striking this balance.

Not only did the White House team tease out many core issues for both public and private sector, but they helped scaffold a framework for policy makers. The recommendations they offer aren’t silver bullets, but they are reasonable first steps. Many will inevitably argue that they don’t go far enough (or, in some cases, go too far) – and I can definitely get nitpicky here – but that’s par for the course. This doesn’t damper my appreciation. I’m still uber grateful to see the Administration take the time to tease out the complexity of the issues and offer a path forward that is not simply polarizing.

Please take a moment to read this important report. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Data & Society would love to hear your thoughts. And if you’re curious to know more about what I’ll be doing next with this Research Institute, please join our newsletter.

Psst: Academics – check out the last line of the report ends on Page 68. Science and Technology Studies for teh win!

(Flickr credit: Stuart Richards)

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2 comments to New White House Report on Big Data

  • Fred Heutte

    Good to see this. Oscar Gandy’s pathbreaking 1993 book, The Panoptic Sort, has this prescient wisdom: “The power to select is the power to exclude.”

    (He also just joined the board of the Center for Digital Democracy btw.)

  • Danah – this is a really impressive report. Very well balanced, relatively easy for a non-expert to engage with, but not shying away from the deep societal challenges that lurk beneath the opportunities. Congratulations to you, and all the others in the team who created it!

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