Comments on: Data and its Discontents – notes and reflections from a panel at Microsoft Research Social Computing Symposium Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003 Thu, 31 May 2018 07:56:57 +0000 hourly 1 By: What We're Reading | Quantified SelfQuantified Self Sun, 09 Feb 2014 17:28:07 +0000 […] Data and its Discontents – notes and reflections from a panel at Microsoft Research Social Computi… by Ethan Zuckerman. There are too many good ideas and interesting thoughts here to spoil it for you. A worthwhile read. […]

By: Memes Against Impunity in Mexico | david sasaki Wed, 29 Jan 2014 17:09:42 +0000 […] of technology, culture and activism. The discussions centered around four main topics: 1) ‘Big Data and its Discontents‘, 2) Social Shopping, 3) Hacking Hardware, and 4) Civic Media and Social Change. During the […]

By: Joseph Reagle Tue, 21 Jan 2014 22:36:59 +0000 Thanks for this Ethan. I too quite like Abraham’s articulation.

By: Jon Gosier Tue, 21 Jan 2014 20:58:34 +0000 “The more powerful you are, the more surveillance you should be subject to. The less powerful you are, the more surveillance you should be protected from.”

One question, when did ‘big data’ become synonymous for surveillance? The big data hype is mostly about the efficiency of translation, taking data that is problematic in one form, and transforming it to another in ways that save humans time. Surveillance is only one, admittedly popular, use case. The NSA is using many of the same tools for surveillance that the World Bank and UN are. Who’s more wrong for using them?

The point you make above about big data representing both ‘hype and hope’ alludes to the real problem here which is conflation. To say surveillance and the manipulation of data on behalf of the poor and vulnerable is bad, is to denounce not just the last 50 years of spying in the US, but also the last 50 years of philanthropic/humanitarian activity in developing countries. When the activities of humanitarian organizations couldn’t have been more removed from local populations they were conducted for.

For them ‘big data’ might have been just trying to figure out what the heck all these foreigners in Range Rovers were doing on their farmlands. Or why all of a sudden their governments where no longer beholden to their local authorities but to foreign ones with whom they couldn’t converse. If the ‘big’ in big data is essentially meant to be analogous with ‘inaccessible to most’, if you think about it, for most of human history data (information) was inaccessible to most.

From that perspective, the data collection technologies in use today are exponentially more transparent and accessible to poor & local populations than those of the past. There are simply more ways for them to participate. There are more ways to learn about what is being used to monitor you, to monitor back, to evade, to disrupt.

Collecting data via short codes to be placed on crisis map that were then analyzed without the permission of the poor has often been called a violation of privacy. But the code is often open source, the information collected is often released as open data, and the people collecting data are often members of the community the projects are meant to serve.

By no means does that make these new technologies accessible to all, but it is an improvement because it makes the conversation accessible to *more*.

This is a dramatic shift from how this same work was done not even 15 years ago. So, for me, focusing on ‘big data’ as a means for surveillance and violation of privacy is privileged point of view. Privileged in that we get to pick and choose what we like about innovations that ultimately serve us without considering how they might serve others. Privileged in that ignores the real disruption that has happened for people who were previously shut-out of conversations that defined their individual lives and collective ways of life.

Ultimately, it’s impossible to blame tools themselves without invalidating uses of that tool both good and bad. As you point out, the good data professionals wrestle with such questions all the time.