Data as a catalyst for philanthropy


Article by Stefaan Verhulst: “…In what follows, we offer five thoughts on how to advance Data Driven Philanthropy. These are operational strategies, specific steps that philanthropic organisations can take in order to harness the potential of data for the public good. At its broadest level, then, this article is about data stewardship in the 21st century. We seek to define how philanthropic organisations can be responsible custodians of data assets, both theirs and those of society at large. Fulfilling this role of data stewardship is a critical mission for the philanthropic sector and one of the most important roles it can play in helping to ensure that our ongoing process of digital transformation is more fair, inclusive, and aligned with the broader public interest…(More)”.

Unlocking Technology for Peacebuilding: The Munich Security Conference’s Role in Empowering a Peacetech Movement


Article by Stefaan Verhulst and Artur Kluz: “This week’s annual Munich Security Conference is taking place amid a turbulent backdrop. The so-called “peace dividend” that followed the end of the Cold War has long since faded. From Ukraine to Sudan to the Middle East, we are living in an era marked by increasingly unstable geopolitics and renewed–and new forms of–violent conflict. Recently, the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, measuring war since 1945, identified 2023 as the worst on record since the Cold War. As the Foreword to the Munich Security Report, issued alongside the Conference, notes: “Unfortunately, this year’s report reflects a downward trend in world politics, marked by an increase in geopolitical tensions and economic uncertainty.”

As we enter deeper into this violent era, it is worth considering the role of technology. It is perhaps no coincidence that a moment of growing peril and division coincides with the increasing penetration of technologies such as smartphones and social media, or with the emergence of new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality. In addition, the actions of satellite operators and cross-border digital payment networks have been thrust into the limelight, with their roles in enabling or precipitating conflict attracting increasing scrutiny. Today, it appears increasingly clear that transnational tech actors–and technology itself–are playing a more significant role in geopolitical conflict than ever before. As the Munich Security Report notes, “Technology has gone from being a driver of global prosperity to being a central means of geopolitical competition.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. While much attention is paid to technology’s negative capabilities, this article argues that technology can also play a more positive role, through the contributions of what is sometimes referred to as Peacetech. Peacetech is an emerging field, encompassing technologies as varied as early warning systemsAI driven predictions, and citizen journalism platforms. Broadly, its aims can be described as preventing conflict, mediating disputes, mitigating human suffering, and protecting human dignity and universal human rights. In the words of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), “Peacetech aims to leverage technology to drive peace while also developing strategies to prevent technology from being used to enable violence.”This article is intended as a call to those attending the Munich Security Conference to prioritize Peacetech — at a global geopolitical forum for peacebuilding. Highlighting recent concerns over the role of technology in conflict–with a particular emphasis on the destructive potential of AI and satellite systems–we argue for technology’s positive potential instead, by promoting peace and mitigating conflict. In particular, we suggest the need for a realignment in how policy and other stakeholders approach and fund technology, to foster its peaceful rather than destructive potential. This realignment would bring out the best in technology; it would harness technology toward the greater public good at a time of rising geopolitical uncertainty and instability…(More)”.

How tracking animal movement may save the planet


Article by Matthew Ponsford: “Researchers have been dreaming of an Internet of Animals. They’re getting closer to monitoring 100,000 creatures—and revealing hidden facets of our shared world….There was something strange about the way the sharks were moving between the islands of the Bahamas.

Tiger sharks tend to hug the shoreline, explains marine biologist Austin Gallagher, but when he began tagging the 1,000-pound animals with satellite transmitters in 2016, he discovered that these predators turned away from it, toward two ancient underwater hills made of sand and coral fragments that stretch out 300 miles toward Cuba. They were spending a lot of time “crisscrossing, making highly tortuous, convoluted movements” to be near them, Gallagher says. 

It wasn’t immediately clear what attracted sharks to the area: while satellite images clearly showed the subsea terrain, they didn’t pick up anything out of the ordinary. It was only when Gallagher and his colleagues attached 360-degree cameras to the animals that they were able to confirm what they were so drawn to: vast, previously unseen seagrass meadows—a biodiverse habitat that offered a smorgasbord of prey.   

The discovery did more than solve a minor mystery of animal behavior. Using the data they gathered from the sharks, the researchers were able to map an expanse of seagrass stretching across 93,000 square kilometers of Caribbean seabed—extending the total known global seagrass coverage by more than 40%, according to a study Gallagher’s team published in 2022. This revelation could have huge implications for efforts to protect threatened marine ecosystems—seagrass meadows are a nursery for one-fifth of key fish stocks and habitats for endangered marine species—and also for all of us above the waves, as seagrasses can capture carbon up to 35 times faster than tropical rainforests. 

Animals have long been able to offer unique insights about the natural world around us, acting as organic sensors picking up phenomena that remain invisible to humans. More than 100 years ago, leeches signaled storms ahead by slithering out of the water; canaries warned of looming catastrophe in coal mines until the 1980s; and mollusks that close when exposed to toxic substances are still used to trigger alarms in municipal water systems in Minneapolis and Poland…(More)”.

Situating Data Sets: Making Public Data Actionable for Housing Justice


Paper by Anh-Ton Tran et al: “Activists, governments and academics regularly advocate for more open data. But how is data made open, and for whom is it made useful and usable? In this paper, we investigate and describe the work of making eviction data open to tenant organizers. We do this through an ethnographic description of ongoing work with a local housing activist organization. This work combines observation, direct participation in data work, and creating media artifacts, specifically digital maps. Our interpretation is grounded in D’Ignazio and Klein’s Data Feminism, emphasizing standpoint theory. Through our analysis and discussion, we highlight how shifting positionalities from data intermediaries to data accomplices affects the design of data sets and maps. We provide HCI scholars with three design implications when situating data for grassroots organizers: becoming a domain beginner, striving for data actionability, and evaluating our design artifacts by the social relations they sustain rather than just their technical efficacy…(More)”.

The U.S. Census Is Wrong on Purpose


Blog by David Friedman: “This is a story about data manipulation. But it begins in a small Nebraska town called Monowi that has only one resident, 90 year old Elsie Eiler.

The sign says “Monowi 1,” from Google Street View.

There used to be more people in Monowi. But little by little, the other residents of Monowi left or died. That’s what happened to Elsie’s own family — her children grew up and moved out and her husband passed away in 2004, leaving her as the sole resident. Now she votes for herself for Mayor, and pays herself taxes. Her husband Rudy’s old book collection became the town library, with Elsie as librarian.

But despite what you might imagine, Elsie is far from lonely. She runs a tavern that’s been in her family for 50 years, and has plenty of regulars from the town next door who come by every day to dine and chat.

I first read about Elsie more than 10 years ago. At the time, it wasn’t as well known a story but Elsie has since gotten a lot of coverage and become a bit of a minor celebrity. Now and then I still come across a new article, including a lovely photo essay in the New York Times and a short video on the BBC Travel site.

A Google search reveals many, many similar articles that all tell more or less the same story.

But then suddenly in 2021, there was a new wrinkle: According to the just-published 2020 U.S. Census data, Monowi now had 2 residents, doubling its population.

This came as a surprise to Elsie, who told a local newspaper, “Then someone’s been hiding from me, and there’s nowhere to live but my house.”

It turns out that nobody new had actually moved to Monowi without Elsie realizing. And the census bureau didn’t make a mistake. They intentionally changed the census data, adding one resident.

Why would they do that? Well, it turns out the census bureau sometimes moves residents around on paper in order to protect people’s privacy.

Full census data is only made available 72 years after the census takes place, in accordance with the creatively-named “72 year rule.” Until then, it is only available as aggregated data with individual identifiers removed. Still, if the population of a town is small enough, and census data for that town indicates, for example, that there is just one 90 year old woman and she lives alone, someone could conceivably figure out who that individual is.

So the census bureau sometimes moves people around to create noise in the data that makes that sort of identification a little bit harder…(More)”.

Defending democracy: The threat to the public sphere from social media


Book Review by Mark Hannam: “Habermas is a blockhead. It is simply impossible to tell what kind of damage he is still going to cause in the future”, wrote Karl Popper in 1969. The following year he added: “Most of what he says seems to me trivial; the rest seems to me mistaken”. Five decades later these Popperian conjectures have been roundly refuted. Now in his mid-nineties, Jürgen Habermas is one of the pre-eminent philosophers and public intellectuals of our time. In Germany his generation enjoyed the mercy of being born too late. In 2004, in a speech given on receipt of the Kyoto prize in arts and philosophy, he observed that “we did not have to answer for choosing the wrong side and for political errors and their dire consequences”. He came to maturity in a society that he judged complacent and insufficiently distanced from its recent past. This experience sets the context for his academic work and political interventions.

Polity has recently published two new books by Habermas, both translated by Ciaran Cronin, providing English readers access to the latest iterations of his distinctive themes and methods. He defends a capacious concept of human reason, a collaborative learning process that operates through discussions in which participants appeal only to the force of the better argument. Different kinds of discussion – about scientific facts, moral norms or aesthetic judgements – employ different standards of justification, so what counts as a valid reason depends on context, but all progress, regardless of the field, relies on our conversations following the path along which reason leads us. Habermas’s principal claim is that human reason, appropriately deployed, retains its liberating potential for the species.

His first book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), traced the emergence in the eighteenth century of the public sphere. This was a functionally distinct social space, located between the privacy of civil society and the formal offices of the modern state, where citizens could engage in processes of democratic deliberation. Habermas drew attention to a range of contemporary phenomena, including the organization of opinion by political parties and the development of mass media funded by advertising, that have disrupted the possibility of widespread, well-informed political debate. Modern democracy, he argued, was increasingly characterized by the technocratic organization of interests, rather than by the open discussion of principles and values…(More)”.

Are Evidence-Based Medicine and Public Health Incompatible?


Essay by Michael Schulson: “It’s a familiar pandemic story: In September 2020, Angela McLean and John Edmunds found themselves sitting in the same Zoom meeting, listening to a discussion they didn’t like.

At some point during the meeting, McLean — professor of mathematical biology at the Oxford University, dame commander of the Order of the British Empire, fellow of the Royal Society of London, and then-chief scientific adviser to the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense — sent Edmunds a message on WhatsApp.

“Who is this fuckwitt?” she asked.

The message was evidently referring to Carl Heneghan, director of the Center for Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford. He was on Zoom that day, along with McLean and Edmunds and two other experts, to advise the British prime minister on the Covid-19 pandemic.

Their disagreement — recently made public as part of a British government inquiry into the Covid-19 response — is one small chapter in a long-running clash between two schools of thought within the world of health care.

McLean and Edmunds are experts in infectious disease modeling; they build elaborate simulations of pandemics, which they use to predict how infections will spread and how best to slow them down. Often, during the Covid-19 pandemic, such models were used alongside other forms of evidence to urge more restrictions to slow the spread of the disease. Heneghan, meanwhile, is a prominent figure in the world of evidence-based medicine, or EBM. The movement aims to help doctors draw on the best available evidence when making decisions and advising patients. Over the past 30 years, EBM has transformed the practice of medicine worldwide.

Whether it can transform the practice of public health — which focuses not on individuals, but on keeping the broader community healthy — is a thornier question…(More)”.

Digitalisation and citizen engagement: comparing participatory budgeting in Rome and Barcelona


Book chapter by Giorgia Mattei, Valentina Santolamazza and Martina Manzo: “The digitalisation of participatory budgeting (PB) is an increasing phenomenon in that digital tools could help achieve greater citizen engagement. However, comparing two similar cases – i.e. Rome and Barcelona – some differences appear during the integration of digital tools into the PB processes. The present study describes how digital tools have positively influenced PB throughout different phases, making communication more transparent, involving a wider audience, empowering people and, consequently, making citizens’ engagement more effective. Nevertheless, the research dwells on the different elements adopted to overcome the digitalisation limits and shows various approaches and results…(More)”.

Air Canada chatbot promised a discount. Now the airline has to pay it


Article by Kyle Melnick: “After his grandmother died in Ontario a few years ago, British Columbia resident Jake Moffatt visited Air Canada’s website to book a flight for the funeral. He received assistance from a chatbot, which told him the airline offered reduced rates for passengers booking last-minute travel due to tragedies.

Moffatt bought a nearly $600 ticket for a next-day flight after the chatbot said he would get some of his money back under the airline’s bereavement policy as long as he applied within 90 days, according to a recent civil-resolutions tribunal decision.

But when Moffatt later attempted to receive the discount, he learned that the chatbot had been wrong. Air Canada only awarded bereavement fees if the request had been submitted before a flight. The airline later argued the chatbot wasa separate legal entity “responsible for its own actions,” the decision said.

Moffatt filed a claim with the Canadian tribunal, which ruled Wednesday that Air Canada owed Moffatt more than $600 in damages and tribunal fees after failing to provide “reasonable care.”

As companies have added artificial intelligence-powered chatbots to their websites in hopes of providing faster service, the Air Canada dispute sheds light on issues associated with the growing technology and how courts could approach questions of accountability. The Canadian tribunal in this case came down on the side of the customer, ruling that Air Canada did not ensure its chatbot was accurate…(More)”

Community views on the secondary use of general practice data: Findings from a mixed-methods study


Paper by Annette J. Braunack-Mayer et al: “General practice data, particularly when combined with hospital and other health service data through data linkage, are increasingly being used for quality assurance, evaluation, health service planning and research.Using general practice data is particularly important in countries where general practitioners (GPs) are the first and principal source of health care for most people.

Although there is broad public support for the secondary use of health data, there are good reasons to question whether this support extends to general practice settings. GP–patient relationships may be very personal and longstanding and the general practice health record can capture a large amount of information about patients. There is also the potential for multiple angles on patients’ lives: GPs often care for, or at least record information about, more than one generation of a family. These factors combine to amplify patients’ and GPs’ concerns about sharing patient data….

Adams et al. have developed a model of social licence, specifically in the context of sharing administrative data for health research, based on an analysis of the social licence literature and founded on two principal elements: trust and legitimacy.In this model, trust is founded on research enterprises being perceived as reliable and responsive, including in relation to privacy and security of information, and having regard to the community’s interests and well-being.

Transparency and accountability measures may be used to demonstrate trustworthiness and, as a consequence, to generate trust. Transparency involves a level of openness about the way data are handled and used as well as about the nature and outcomes of the research. Adams et al. note that lack of transparency can undermine trust. They also note that the quality of public engagement is important and that simply providing information is not sufficient. While this is one element of transparency, other elements such as accountability and collaboration are also part of the trusting, reflexive relationship necessary to establish and support social licence.

The second principal element, legitimacy, is founded on research enterprises conforming to the legal, cultural and social norms of society and, again, acting in the best interests of the community. In diverse communities with a range of views and interests, it is necessary to develop a broad consensus on what amounts to the common good through deliberative and collaborative processes.

Social licence cannot be assumed. It must be built through public discussion and engagement to avoid undermining the relationship of trust with health care providers and confidence in the confidentiality of health information…(More)”