Data-driven elections


Introduction to Special Issue of Internet Policy Review by Colin J. Bennett and David Lyon: “There is a pervasive assumption that elections can be won and lost on the basis of which candidate or party has the better data on the preferences and behaviour of the electorate. But there are myths and realities about data-driven elections. I

t is time to assess the actual implications of data-driven elections in the light of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, and to reconsider the broader terms of the international debate. Political micro-targeting, and the voter analytics upon which it is based, are essentially forms of surveillance. We know a lot about how surveillance harms democratic values. We know a lot less, however, about how surveillance spreads as a result of democratic practices – by the agents and organisations that encourage us to vote (or not vote).

The articles in this collection, developed out of a workshop hosted by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia in April 2019, address the most central issues about data-driven elections, and particularly the impact of US social media platforms on local political institutions and cultures. The balance between rights to privacy, and the rights of political actors to communicate with the electorate, is struck in different ways in different jurisdictions depending on a complex interplay of various legal, political, and cultural factors. Collectively, the articles in this collection signal the necessary questions for academics and regulators in the years ahead….(More)”.

Barriers to Working With National Health Service England’s Open Data


Paper by Ben Goldacre and Seb Bacon: “Open data is information made freely available to third parties in structured formats without restrictive licensing conditions, permitting commercial and noncommercial organizations to innovate. In the context of National Health Service (NHS) data, this is intended to improve patient outcomes and efficiency. EBM DataLab is a research group with a focus on online tools which turn our research findings into actionable monthly outputs. We regularly import and process more than 15 different NHS open datasets to deliver OpenPrescribing.net, one of the most high-impact use cases for NHS England’s open data, with over 15,000 unique users each month. In this paper, we have described the many breaches of best practices around NHS open data that we have encountered. Examples include datasets that repeatedly change location without warning or forwarding; datasets that are needlessly behind a “CAPTCHA” and so cannot be automatically downloaded; longitudinal datasets that change their structure without warning or documentation; near-duplicate datasets with unexplained differences; datasets that are impossible to locate, and thus may or may not exist; poor or absent documentation; and withholding of data for dubious reasons. We propose new open ways of working that will support better analytics for all users of the NHS. These include better curation, better documentation, and systems for better dialogue with technical teams….(More)”.

Making Public Transit Fairer to Women Demands Way More Data


Flavie Halais at Wired: “Public transportation is sexist. This may be unintentional or implicit, but it’s also easy to see. Women around the world do more care and domestic work than men, and their resulting mobility habits are hobbled by most transport systems. The demands of running errands and caring for children and other family members mean repeatedly getting on and off the bus, meaning paying more fares. Strollers and shopping bags make travel cumbersome. A 2018 study of New Yorkers found women were harassed on the subway far more frequently than men were, and as a result paid more money to avoid transit in favor of taxis and ride-hail….

What is not measured is not known, and the world of transit data is still largely blind to women and other vulnerable populations. Getting that data, though, isn’t easy. Traditional sources like national censuses and user surveys provide reliable information that serve as the basis for policies and decisionmaking. But surveys are costly to run, and it can take years for a government to go through the process of adding a question to its national census.

Before pouring resources into costly data collection to find answers about women’s transport needs, cities could first turn to the trove of unconventional gender-disaggregated data that’s already produced. They include data exhaust, or the trail of data we leave behind as a result of our interactions with digital products and services like mobile phones, credit cards, and social media. Last year, researchers in Santiago, Chile, released a report based on their parsing of anonymized call detail records of female mobile phone users, to extract location information and analyze their mobility patterns. They found that women tended to travel to fewer locations than men, and within smaller geographical areas. When researchers cross-referenced location information with census data, they found a higher gender gap among lower-income residents, as poorer women made even shorter trips. And when using data from the local transit agency, they saw that living close to a public transit stop increased mobility for both men and women, but didn’t close the gender gap for poorer residents.

To encourage private companies to share such info, Stefaan Verhulst advocates for data collaboratives, flexible partnerships between data providers and researchers. Verhulst is the head of research and development at GovLab, a research center at New York University that contributed to the research in Santiago. And that’s how GovLab and its local research partner, Universidad del Desarollo, got access to the phone records owned by the Chilean phone company, Telefónica. Data collaboratives can enhance access to private data without exposing companies to competition or privacy concerns. “We need to find ways to access data according to different shades of openness,” Verhulst says….(More)”.

UK citizens' climate assembly to meet for first time


Sandra Laville in The Guardian: “Ordinary people from across the UK – potentially including climate deniers – will take part in the first ever citizens’ climate assembly this weekend.

Mirroring the model adopted in France by Emmanuel Macron, 110 people from all walks of life will begin deliberations on Saturday to come up with a plan to tackle global heating and meet the government’s target of net-zero emissions by 2050.

The assembly was selected to be a representative sample of the population after a mailout to 30,000 people chosen at random. About 2,000 people responded saying they wanted to be considered for the assembly, and the 110 members were picked by computer.

They come from all age brackets and their selection reflects a 2019 Ipsos Mori poll of how concerned the general population is by climate change, where responses ranged from not at all to very concerned. Of the assembly members, three people are not at all concerned, 16 not very concerned, 36 fairly concerned, 54 very concerned, and one did not know, organisers said.

The selection process meant those chosen could include climate deniers or sceptics, according to Sarah Allan, the head of engagement at Involve, which is running the assembly along with the Sortition Foundation and the e-democracy project mySociety.

“It is really important that it is representative of the UK population,” said Allen. “Those people, just because they’re sceptical of climate change, they’re going to be affected by the steps the government takes to get to net zero by 2050 too and they shouldn’t have their voice denied in that.”

The UK climate assembly differs from the French model in that it was commissioned by six select committees, rather than by the prime minister. Their views, which will be produced in a report in the spring, will be considered by the select committees but there is no guarantee any of the proposals will be taken up by government.

Allen said it was rare for members of a citizens’ assembly to get locked into dissent. She pointed to the success of the Irish citizens’ assembly in 2016, which helped break the deadlock in the abortion debate. “This climate assembly is going to come up with recommendations that are going to be really invaluable in highlighting public preferences,” she said….(More)”.

Reuse of open data in Quebec: from economic development to government transparency


Paper by

Reuse of open data in Quebec: from economic development to government transparency

Paper by Christian Boudreau: “Based on the history of open data in Quebec, this article discusses the reuse of these data by various actors within society, with the aim of securing desired economic, administrative and democratic benefits. Drawing on an analysis of government measures and community practices in the field of data reuse, the study shows that the benefits of open data appear to be inconclusive in terms of economic growth. On the other hand, their benefits seem promising from the point of view of government transparency in that it allows various civil society actors to monitor the integrity and performance of government activities. In the age of digital data and networks, the state must be seen not only as a platform conducive to innovation, but also as a rich field of study that is closely monitored by various actors driven by political and social goals….

Although the economic benefits of open data have been inconclusive so far, governments, at least in Quebec, must not stop investing in opening up their data. In terms of transparency, the results of the study suggest that the benefits of open data are sufficiently promising to continue releasing government data, if only to support the evaluation and planning activities of public programmes and services….(More)”.

People learn in different ways. The way we teach should reflect that


Article by Jason Williams-Bellamy and Beth Simone Noveck: “There’s never been more hybrid learning in the public sector than today…

There are pros and cons in online and in-person training. But some governments are combining both in a hybrid (also known as blended) learning program. According to the Online Learning Consortium, hybrid courses can be either:

  • A classroom course in which online activity is mixed with classroom meetings, replacing a significant portion, but not all face-to-face activity
  • An online course that is supplemented by required face-to-face instruction such as lectures, discussions, or labs.

A hybrid course can effectively combine the short-term activity of an in-person workshop with the longevity and scale of an online course.

The Digital Leaders program in Israel is a good example of hybrid training. Digital Leaders is a nine-month program designed to train two cohorts of 40 leaders each in digital innovation by means of a regular series of online courses, shared between Israel and a similar program in the UK, interspersed with live workshops. This style of blended learning makes optimal use of participants’ time while also establishing a digital environment and culture among the cohort not seen in traditional programs.

The State government in New Jersey, where I serve as the Chief Innovation Officer, offers a free and publicly accessible online introduction to innovation skills for public servants called the Innovation Skills Accelerator. Those who complete the course become eligible for face-to-face project coaching and we are launching our first skills “bootcamp,” blending online and the face-to-face in Q1 2020.

Blended classrooms have been linked to greater engagement and increased collaboration among participating students. Blended courses allow learners to customise their learning experience in a way that is uniquely best suited for them. One study even found that blended learning improves student engagement and learning even if they only take advantage of the traditional in-classroom resources. While the added complexity of designing for online and off may be off-putting to some, the benefits are clear.

The best way to teach public servants is to give them multiple ways to learn….(More)”.

The Experimenter’s Inventory: A catalogue of experiments for decision-makers and professionals


Report by the Alliance for Useful Evidence: “This inventory is about how you can use experiments to solve public and social problems. It aims to provide a framework for thinking about the choices available to a government, funder or delivery organisation that wants to experiment more effectively. We aim to simplify jargon and do some myth-busting on common misperceptions.
There are other guides on specific areas of experimentation – such as on randomised controlled trials – including many specialist technical textbooks. This is not a technical manual or guide about how to run experiments. Rather, this inventory is useful for anybody wanting a jargon-free overview of the types and uses of experiments. It is unique in its breadth – covering the whole landscape of social and policy experimentation, including prototyping, rapid cycle testing, quasi-experimental designs, and a range of different types of randomised trials. Experimentation can be a confusing landscape – and there are competing definitions about what constitutes an experiment among researchers, innovators and evaluation practitioners. We take a pragmatic approach, including different designs that are useful for public problem-solving, under our experimental umbrella. We cover ways of experimenting that are both qualitative and quantitative, and highlight what we can learn from different approaches….(More)”.

How Aid Groups Map Refugee Camps That Officially Don't Exist


Abby Sewell at Wired: “On the outskirts of Zahle, a town in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, a pair of aid workers carrying clipboards and cell phones walk through a small refugee camp, home to 11 makeshift shelters built from wood and tarps.

A camp resident leading them through the settlement—one of many in the Beqaa, a wide agricultural plain between Beirut and Damascus with scattered villages of cinderblock houses—points out a tent being renovated for the winter. He leads them into the kitchen of another tent, highlighting cracking wood supports and leaks in the ceiling. The aid workers record the number of residents in each tent, as well as the number of latrines and kitchens in the settlement.

The visit is part of an initiative by the Switzerland-based NGO Medair to map the locations of the thousands of informal refugee settlements in Lebanon, a country where even many city buildings have no street addresses, much less tents on a dusty country road.

“I always say that this project is giving an address to people that lost their home, which is giving back part of their dignity in a way,” says Reine Hanna, Medair’s information management project manager, who helped develop the mapping project.

The initiative relies on GIS technology, though the raw data is collected the old-school way, without high tech mapping aids like drones. Mapping teams criss-cross the country year round, stopping at each camp to speak to residents and conduct a survey. They enter the coordinates of new camps or changes in the population or facilities of old ones into a database that’s shared with UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, and other NGOs working in the camps. The maps can be accessed via a mobile app by workers heading to the field to distribute aid or respond to emergencies.

Lebanon, a small country with an estimated native population of about 4 million, hosts more than 900,000 registered Syrian refugees and potentially hundreds of thousands more unregistered, making it the country with the highest population of refugees per capita in the world.

But there are no official refugee camps run by the government or the UN refugee agency in Lebanon, where refugees are a sensitive subject. The country is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and government officials refer to the Syrians as “displaced,” not “refugees.”

Lebanese officials have been wary of the Syrians settling permanently, as Palestinian refugees did beginning in 1948. Today, more than 70 years later, there are some 470,000 Palestinian refugees registered in Lebanon, though the number living in the country is believed to be much lower….(More)”.

Four maps showing the growth of informal Syrian refugee settlements in the Zahle district of the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon
Maps compiled by UNHCR showing the growth in the number of informal refugee camps in one area of Lebanon over the past six years.COURTESY OF UNHCR

Hospitals Give Tech Giants Access to Detailed Medical Records


Melanie Evans at the Wall Street Journal: “Hospitals have granted Microsoft Corp., International Business Machines and Amazon.com Inc. the ability to access identifiable patient information under deals to crunch millions of health records, the latest examples of hospitals’ growing influence in the data economy.

The breadth of access wasn’t always spelled out by hospitals and tech giants when the deals were struck.

The scope of data sharing in these and other recently reported agreements reveals a powerful new role that hospitals play—as brokers to technology companies racing into the $3 trillion health-care sector. Rapid digitization of health records and privacy laws enabling companies to swap patient data have positioned hospitals as a primary arbiter of how such sensitive data is shared. 

“Hospitals are massive containers of patient data,” said Lisa Bari, a consultant and former lead for health information technology for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Innovation Center. 

Hospitals can share patient data as long as they follow federal privacy laws, which contain limited consumer protections, she said. “The data belongs to whoever has it.”…

Digitizing patients’ medical histories, laboratory results and diagnoses has created a booming market in which tech giants are looking to store and crunch data, with potential for groundbreaking discoveries and lucrative products.

There is no indication of wrongdoing in the deals. Officials at the companies and hospitals say they have safeguards to protect patients. Hospitals control data, with privacy training and close tracking of tech employees with access, they said. Health data can’t be combined independently with other data by tech companies….(More)”.

Information literacy in the age of algorithms


Report by Alison J. Head, Ph.D., Barbara Fister, Margy MacMillan: “…Three sets of questions guided this report’s inquiry:

  1. What is the nature of our current information environment, and how has it influenced how we access, evaluate, and create knowledge today? What do findings from a decade of PIL research tell us about the information skills and habits students will need for the future?
  2. How aware are current students of the algorithms that filter and shape the news and information they encounter daily? What
    concerns do they have about how automated decision-making systems may influence us, divide us, and deepen inequalities?
  3. What must higher education do to prepare students to understand the new media landscape so they will be able to participate in sharing and creating information responsibly in a changing and challenged world?
    To investigate these questions, we draw on qualitative data that PIL researchers collected from student focus groups and faculty interviews during fall 2019 at eight U.S. colleges and universities. Findings from a sample of 103 students and 37 professors reveal levels of awareness and concerns about the age of algorithms on college campuses. They are presented as research takeaways….(More)”.