Dialogues on data, policy and civic life


Next Tues­day a few of us at Microsoft Research are host­ing a day-long dia­logue to dis­cuss the inter­ming­lings of data and social/civic life. We’re bring­ing togeth­er a mix of social the­or­ists, com­ment­at­ors and poli­cy advisers with the hope of draw­ing out pos­sib­il­it­ies for doing poli­cy mak­ing (as well as tech­no­logy design) dif­fer­ently. Our pre­amble for the event fol­lows (a print­able PDF can be down­loaded here):

Dialogues on data, policy and civic life

The graphs below present two fairly typ­ic­al examples of visu­al­isa­tions chart­ing some kind of data over time. In this case, they are the data a few of us at Microsoft Research in Cam­bridge have begun to col­lect of vehicle and bicycle jour­neys out­side our office build­ing. They show the volume of jour­neys along Ten­ison Road, recor­ded over twenty-four hours. The first indic­ates the dens­ity of the traf­fic and the second presents the dir­ec­tion of that traf­fic.

density_BW short


But why are we col­lect­ing this data? How and where will it cir­cu­late? And to what end? We might ask, as well, what rights we have to cap­ture, store and present the data? Who should have rights to the data? How will it be used? In short, in what ways do the flows of traf­fic on Ten­ison Road mat­ter, and to whom?

It’s pre­cisely this line of ques­tion­ing that has motiv­ated our traffic-monitoring exer­cise and more gen­er­ally a year­long pro­ject we are embark­ing on with the people liv­ing and work­ing on Ten­ison Road. The pro­ject — hand­ily called the Ten­ison Road pro­ject — stems from some troubles we’ve had with all the excite­ment about data being repor­ted by the pop­ular press and matched by at least some of the claims com­ing from our technologically-minded com­rades. It is hard not to open a news­pa­per, journ­al issue or con­fer­ence pro­ceed­ings without see­ing some­thing about data. On the one hand we have some pretty exag­ger­ated claims envi­sion­ing data (espe­cially Big Data) as the final answer for under­stand­ing just about any­thing that’s hither­to been too com­plex to under­stand. On the oth­er, we see an abund­ance of stor­ies pre­dict­ing that a sur­veil­lance soci­ety afforded by the pro­lif­er­a­tion of per­son­al data is set to dis­mantle civic life as we know it. Run­ning along­side this is a dis­cus­sion on appro­pri­ate poli­cy frame­works that might enable the poten­tial of data, while min­im­iz­ing the risks and pro­tect­ing the rights of cit­izens — encap­su­lated by the European Union’s focus this past year on gain­ing approval for the draft Data Pro­tec­tion Reg­u­la­tion.

No mat­ter how you cut it, how­ever, it’s abund­antly clear that where data extends into the every­day — and is mobil­ised with many het­ero­gen­eous motives — there are some pro­foundly chal­len­ging tech­nic­al, social and eth­ic­al issues at stake. On Ten­ison Road at least, we’ve found such issues to be deeply inter­twined, imme­di­ately rais­ing ques­tions around how par­tic­u­lar act­ors are pri­or­it­ised and priv­ileged and wheth­er there may be dif­fer­ent and pos­sibly bet­ter ways to dis­trib­ute agency. We’ve found there to be a troub­ling (if not alto­geth­er unsur­pris­ing) degree of nuance and com­plex­ity, and some real uncer­tainty about how things might be bet­ter.

Per­haps too often, Big Data — and data in gen­er­al — is dis­cussed in the abstract, and the tend­ency is to over­look these nuances and com­plex­it­ies. The impact of forms of digit­al data on indi­vidu­als and soci­et­ies are not fully under­stood. There is a dearth of evid­ence on the role of data in every­day life: how people think about it and its effects on com­munit­ies and col­lect­ive decision-making. In the­ory, bet­ter evid­ence should lead to improved poli­cy mak­ing, both in its effect­ive­ness and imple­ment­a­tion. Prac­tic­ally, how this might hap­pen is far from clear.

It is with these, if you will, ‘troubles’ in mind that we’ve planned this day of dia­logue, bring­ing togeth­er the­or­ists, poli­cy makers, and com­ment­at­ors. The dia­logues will invite pro­voca­tions and con­tro­ver­sies as ways of get­ting at prob­lem­at­ic issues at the inter­sec­tion of poli­cy mak­ing, tech­no­logy design and civic life. These may describe situ­ations where the bound­ar­ies between people, tech­no­lo­gies and con­cepts are vague, con­tested or oth­er­wise ‘messy’. Our hope is that they will also be gen­er­at­ive and invite insights into design­ing more appro­pri­ate tech­no­lo­gies, poli­cy frame­works and civic engage­ments.

The struc­ture of the dia­logue day is delib­er­ately open so that import­ant mat­ters of con­cern can be iden­ti­fied col­lab­or­at­ively, and unrav­elled at length dur­ing what we’re ambi­tiously think­ing of as ‘un-sessions’. Reports from oth­er poli­cy for­ums hint at a range of rich top­ics that might be sig­ni­fic­ant to those of us work­ing at the inter­sec­tions of data, poli­cy and civic life.1 Poli­cy dis­cus­sions that have focused on the inter­ac­tions between dif­fer­ent groups, such as indi­vidu­als, organ­isa­tions and gov­ern­ments, often draw on the meta­phor of ‘eco­sys­tems’. Think­ing through the inter­play with­in such sys­tems, poli­cy makers are chal­lenged to medi­ate between the rights and respons­ib­il­it­ies of vari­ous act­ors. Con­cepts of risk and harm are to be bal­anced again­st emer­ging oppor­tun­it­ies for the pro­duc­tion of vari­ous forms of value. Moreover, as data sub­jects or cit­izens, indi­vidu­als are figured as hav­ing par­tic­u­lar rights — most obvi­ously to secur­ity and pri­vacy. There are ques­tions around how these should be bal­anced again­st the bene­fits to lar­ger social group­ings such as soci­et­ies and nation-states.

Although a shared vocab­u­lary is emer­ging in this area, many dif­fer­ences remain in how poli­cy prob­lems are under­stood and artic­u­lated; indeed we anti­cip­ate that par­ti­cipants in our dia­logue day will bring along a wide range of per­spect­ives. Rather than assum­ing con­sensus, we want to turn atten­tion to the prac­tice of problem-making itself. How do we cur­rently for­mu­late the chal­lenges and prom­ises of data in policy-making? How are the act­ors involved (such as indi­vidu­als and organ­isa­tions) bounded and framed? The many pos­i­tions gen­er­ated dur­ing the dia­logue day provide an oppor­tun­ity to delib­er­ately com­plic­ate and thick­en the issues. How can we learn from each oth­er in order to pose bet­ter or dif­fer­ent prob­lems? How might pro­voca­tions or con­tro­ver­sies chal­lenge us to artic­u­late act­ors dif­fer­ently? How might enga­ging with the prac­tice of problem-making in crit­ic­al, invent­ive or spec­u­lat­ive ways shift the con­cerns that emerge? How might these shifts res­ult in bet­ter tech­no­lo­gies, policies, and eth­ic­al sys­tems that can help address the chal­lenges posed?

Here at Microsoft Research, in the con­text of the Ten­ison Road pro­ject, doing problem-making dif­fer­ently has meant grap­pling with how indi­vidu­als are tied togeth­er in com­plex ways, as part of net­works, groups or com­munit­ies. We have had to reflect on what cit­izen­ship might mean in the design and devel­op­ment of this research. Our exper­i­ences res­on­ate with chal­lenges in the devel­op­ment of data poli­cy. We might ask what kinds of col­lect­ives are evoked by ideas of the ‘com­mun­al’ or ‘great­er good’? Like­wise, this research has involved assem­bling a diverse group of people from Ten­ison Road and bey­ond. We are con­stantly ques­tion­ing (and being ques­tioned about) what par­ti­cip­a­tion might mean, par­tic­u­larly as the pro­ject devel­ops to address com­munity con­cerns over time. Pub­lic par­ti­cip­a­tion in poli­cy con­texts is often under­stood as a ‘good,’ but how is par­ti­cip­a­tion allowed to unfold? How might we unpack phrases such as ‘cit­izen empower­ment’? These are examples of the kinds of top­ics that might be raised for fur­ther dis­cus­sion dur­ing the un-sessions, depend­ing on the interests and align­ments of attendees.

One of the most import­ant out­comes of the dia­logue day will be a list of ques­tions that can set us on an appro­pri­ate course to address the object­ives dis­cussed above. We are also craft­ing a dynam­ic com­munity of interest that can pur­sue the devel­op­ment of approaches that may poten­tially lead to solu­tions. The ques­tions can be used to inform future meet­ings or events, but we hope they may gen­er­ate insights that can ulti­mately and prac­tic­ally inform the devel­op­ment of data poli­cy and form the bases for an act­ive and grow­ing com­munity of inter­ested parties.

The list of ques­tions will be cir­cu­lated to par­ti­cipants, along with a sum­mary report that attempts to detail the dis­cus­sions that took place on the day. We encour­age any sub­mis­sions, con­tri­bu­tions or changes to this doc­u­ment. Finally, we will pro­duce a com­ment­ary — in the form of a pos­i­tion paper of sorts — that fleshes out in great­er depth the con­nec­tions between these dis­cus­sions and the ques­tions that are emer­ging from the Ten­ison Road pro­ject. This will draw on soci­olo­gic­al lit­er­at­ures, par­tic­u­larly those spe­cific to the study of sci­ence and tech­no­logy. We ima­gine that this might be one of a series of pos­i­tion papers and invite par­ti­cipants of the dia­logue day to con­trib­ute. Our hope is that this will be the begin­ning of a con­tinu­ing dia­logue, hos­ted here at Microsoft Resarch or by oth­ers in the emer­ging net­work.

The vis­ion of a data-rich and hyper-connected world presents some of the most chal­len­ging ques­tions, par­tic­u­larly at the inter­sec­tion of data, poli­cy and civic life. We are pleased to be facil­it­at­ing such a know­ledge­able group of people from diverse back­grounds, to begin work­ing through these ‘troubles’.

1Examples include:

(a) World Eco­nom­ic For­um reports, avail­able here.

(b) strands of the 2013 Big Data European Con­fer­ence, see here.

© the Inter­na­tion­al Insti­tute of Com­mu­nic­a­tions work­shop on “Cre­at­ing a User-Centred Data Eco­sys­tem: Con­text and Poli­cy,” see here.

More inform­a­tion about the Ten­ison Road pro­ject is avail­able here.

This doc­u­ment has been authored by Lara Hou­s­ton, Alex Taylor and Car­o­lyn Nguy­en.

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