Differential Perspectives

This update is to let you know about a new essay that’s now online in in-press form: “Differential Perspectives: Epistemic Disconnects Surrounding the US Census Bureau’s Use of Differential Privacy.” Click here to read the full essay.

When the U.S. Census Bureau announced its intention to modernize its disclosure avoidance procedures for the 2020 Census, it sparked a controversy that is still underway. The move to differential privacy introduced technical and procedural uncertainties, leaving stakeholders unable to evaluate the quality of the data. More importantly, this transformation exposed the statistical illusions and limitations of census data, weakening stakeholders’ trust in the data and in the Census Bureau itself.

Jayshree Sarathy and I have been trying to make sense of the epistemic currents of this controversy. In other words, how do divergent ways of sense-making shape people’s understanding of census data – and what does that tell us about how people deal with census data controversies.

We wrote an essay for an upcoming special issue of Harvard Data Science Review that will focus on differential privacy and the 2020 Census. While the special issue is not yet out, we were given permission to post our in-press essay online. And so I thought I’d share it here for those of you who relish geeky writings about census, privacy, politics, and controversies. This paper draws heavily on Science and Technology Studies (STS) theories and is based on ethnographic fieldwork. In it, we analyze the current controversy over differential privacy as a battle over uncertainty, trust, and legitimacy of the Census. We argue that rebuilding trust will require more than technical repairs or improved communication; it will require reconstructing what we
identify as a ‘statistical imaginary.’ Check out our full argument here.

For those who prefer the tl;dr video version, I sketched out some of these ideas at the Microsoft Research Summit in the fall.

We are still continuing to work through these ideas so by all means, feel free to share feedback or critiques; we relish them.

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