Transparent Predictions

New Paper by Tal Zarsky: “Can human behavior be predicted? A broad variety of governmental initiatives are using computerized processes to try. Vast datasets of personal information enhance the ability to engage in these ventures and the appetite to push them forward. Governments have a distinct interest in automated individualized predictions to foresee unlawful actions. Novel technological tools, especially data-mining applications, are making governmental predictions possible. The growing use of predictive practices is generating serious concerns regarding the lack of transparency. Although echoed across the policy, legal, and academic debate, the nature of transparency, in this context, is unclear. Transparency flows from different, even competing, rationales, as well as very different legal and philosophical backgrounds. This Article sets forth a unique and comprehensive conceptual framework for understanding the role transparency must play as a regulatory concept in the crucial and innovative realm of automated predictive modeling.”

San Francisco To Test Online Participatory Budgeting “Taxpayers are sometimes the best people to decide how their money gets spent — sounds obvious, but usually we don’t have a direct say beyond who we elect. That’s changing for San Francisco residents.
It intends to be the first major US city to allow citizens to directly vote on portions of budget via the web. While details are still coming together, its plan is for each city district to vote on $100,000 in expenditures. Citizens will get to choose how the money is spent from a list of options, similar to the way they already vote from a list of ballot propositions. Topical experts will help San Francisco residents deliberate online.
So-called “participatory budgeting” first began in the festival city of Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989, and has slowly been expanding throughout the world. While major cities, such as Chicago and New York, have piloted participatory budgeting, they have not incorporated the modern features of digital voting and deliberation that are currently utilized in Brazil.
According to participatory budgeting expert and former White House technology fellow, Hollie Russon Gilman, San Francisco’s experiment will mark a “frontier” in American direct democracy.
This is significant because the Internet engenders a different type of democracy: not one of mere expression, but one of ideas. The net is good at surfacing the best ideas hidden within the wisdom of the crowds. Modern political scientists refer to this as “Epistemic Democracy,” derived from the Greek word for knowledge, epistēmē. Epistemic Democracy values citizens most for their expertise and builds tools to make policy making more informed.
For example, participatory budgeting has been found to reduce infant mortality rates in Brazil. It turns out that the mothers in Brazil had a better knowledge of why children were dying than health experts. Through participatory budgeting, they “channeled a larger fraction of their total budget to key investments in sanitation and health services,” writes Sonia Goncalves of King’s College London. “I also found that this change in the composition of municipal expenditures is associated with a pronounced reduction in the infant mortality rates for municipalities which adopted participatory budgeting.” [PDF]”

Three ways to think of the future…

Geoff Mulgan’s blog: “Here I suggest three complementary ways of thinking about the future which provide partial protection against the pitfalls.
The shape of the future
First, create your own composite future by engaging with the trends. There are many methods available for mapping the future – from Foresight to scenarios to the Delphi method.
Behind all are implicit views about the shapes of change. Indeed any quantitative exploration of the future uses a common language of patterns (shown in this table above) which summarises the fact that some things will go up, some go down, some change suddenly and some not at all.
All of us have implicit or explicit assumptions about these. But it’s rare to interrogate them systematically and test whether our assumptions about what fits in which category are right.
Let’s start with the J shaped curves. Many of the long-term trends around physical phenomena look J-curved: rising carbon emissions, water useage and energy consumption have been exponential in shape over the centuries. As we know, physical constraints mean that these simply can’t go on – the J curves have to become S shaped sooner or later, or else crash. That is the ecological challenge of the 21st century.
New revolutions
But there are other J curves, particularly the ones associated with digital technology.  Moore’s Law and Metcalfe’s Law describe the dramatically expanding processing power of chips, and the growing connectedness of the world.  Some hope that the sheer pace of technological progress will somehow solve the ecological challenges. That hope has more to do with culture than evidence. But these J curves are much faster than the physical ones – any factor that doubles every 18 months achieves stupendous rates of change over decades.
That’s why we can be pretty confident that digital technologies will continue to throw up new revolutions – whether around the Internet of Things, the quantified self, machine learning, robots, mass surveillance or new kinds of social movement. But what form these will take is much harder to predict, and most digital prediction has been unreliable – we have Youtube but not the Interactive TV many predicted (when did you last vote on how a drama should end?); relatively simple SMS and twitter spread much more than ISDN or fibre to the home.  And plausible ideas like the long tail theory turned out to be largely wrong.
If the J curves are dramatic but unusual, much more of the world is shaped by straight line trends – like ageing or the rising price of disease that some predict will take costs of healthcare up towards 40 or 50% of GDP by late in the century, or incremental advances in fuel efficiency, or the likely relative growth of the Chinese economy.
Also important are the flat straight lines – the things that probably won’t change in the next decade or two:  the continued existence of nation states not unlike those of the 19th century? Air travel making use of fifty year old technologies?
Great imponderables
If the Js are the most challenging trends, the most interesting ones are the ‘U’s’- the examples of trends bending:  like crime which went up for a century and then started going down, or world population that has been going up but could start going down in the later part of this century, or divorce rates which seem to have plateaued, or Chinese labour supply which is forecast to turn down in the 2020s.
No one knows if the apparently remorseless upward trends of obesity and depression will turn downwards. No one knows if the next generation in the West will be poorer than their parents. And no one knows if democratic politics will reinvent itself and restore trust. In every case, much depends on what we do. None of these trends is a fact of nature or an act of God.
That’s one reason why it’s good to immerse yourself in these trends and interrogate what shape they really are. Out of that interrogation we can build a rough mental model and generate our own hypotheses – ones not based on the latest fashion or bestseller but hopefully on a sense of what the data shows and in particular what’s happening to the deltas – the current rates of change of different phenomena.”

Open Access

Reports by the UK’s House of Commons, Business, Innovation and Skills Committee: “Open access refers to the immediate, online availability of peer reviewed research articles, free at the point of access (i.e. without subscription charges or paywalls). Open access relates to scholarly articles and related outputs. Open data (which is a separate area of Government policy and outside the scope of this inquiry) refers to the availability of the underlying research data itself. At the heart of the open access movement is the principle that publicly funded research should be publicly accessible. Open access expanded rapidly in the late twentieth century with the growth of the internet and digitisation (the transcription of data into a digital form), as it became possible to disseminate research findings more widely, quickly and cheaply.
Whilst there is widespread agreement that the transition to open access is essential in order to improve access to knowledge, there is a lack of consensus about the best route to achieve it. To achieve open access at scale in the UK, there will need to be a shift away from the dominant subscription-based business model. Inevitably, this will involve a transitional period and considerable change within the scholarly publishing market.
For the UK to transition to open access, an effective, functioning and competitive market in scholarly communications will be vital. The evidence we saw over the course of this inquiry shows that this is currently far from the case, with journal subscription prices rising at rates that are unsustainable for UK universities and other subscribers. There is a significant risk that the Government’s current open access policy will inadvertently encourage and prolong the dysfunctional elements of the scholarly publishing market, which are a major barrier to access.
See Volume I and  Volume II

From Networked Publics to Issue Publics: Reconsidering the Public/Private Distinction in Web Science

New paper by Andreas Birkbak: “As an increasing part of everyday life becomes connected with the web in many areas of the globe, the question of how the web mediates political processes becomes still more urgent. Several scholars have started to address this question by thinking about the web in terms of a public space. In this paper, we aim to make a twofold contribution towards the development of the concept of publics in web science. First, we propose that although the notion of publics raises a variety of issues, two major concerns continue to be user privacy and democratic citizenship on the web. Well-known arguments hold that the complex connectivity of the web puts user privacy at risk and enables the enclosure of public debate in virtual echo chambers. Our first argument is that these concerns are united by a set of assumptions coming from liberal political philosophy that are rarely made explicit. As a second contribution, this paper points towards an alternative way to think about publics by proposing a pragmatist reorientation of the public/private distinction in web science, away from seeing two spheres that needs to be kept separate, towards seeing the public and the private as something that is continuously connected. The theoretical argument is illustrated by reference to a recently published case study of Facebook groups, and future research agendas for the study of web-mediated publics are proposed.”

Nudge Nation: A New Way to Prod Students Into and Through College

Ben Wildavsky at EducationSector: “Thanks in part to Thaler and Sunstein’s work, the power of nudges has become well-established—including on many college campuses, where students around the country are beginning the fall semester. While online education and software-driven pedagogy on college campuses have received a good deal of attention, a less visible set of technology-driven initiatives also has gained a foothold: behavioral nudges designed to keep students on track to succeed. Just as e-commerce entrepreneurs have drawn on massive troves of consumer data to create algorithms for firms such as Netflix and Amazon, which unbundle the traditional storefront consumer experience through customized, online delivery, architects of campus technology nudges also rely on data analytics or data mining to improve the student experience.

By giving students information-driven suggestions that lead to smarter actions, technology nudges are intended to tackle a range of problems surrounding the process by which students begin college and make their way to graduation.
New approaches are certainly needed….
There are many reasons for low rates of persistence and graduation, including financial problems, the difficulty of juggling non-academic responsibilities such as work and family, and, for some first-generation stu­dents, culture shock. But academic engagement and success are major contributors. That’s why colleges are using behavioral nudges, drawing on data analytics and behavioral psychology, to focus on problems that occur along the academic pipeline:
• Poor student organization around the logistics of going to college
• Unwise course selections that increase the risk of failure and extend time to degree
• Inadequate information about academic progress and the need for academic help
• Unfocused support systems that identify struggling students but don’t directly engage with them
• Difficulty tapping into counseling services
These new ventures, whether originating within colleges or created by outside entrepreneurs, are doing things with data that just couldn’t be done in the past—creating giant databases of student course records, for example, to find patterns of success and failure that result when certain kinds of students take certain kinds of courses.”

Visualizing the legislative process with Sankey diagrams

Kamil Gregor at “The process of shaping the law often resembles an Indiana Jones maze. Bills and amendments run through an elaborate system of committees, sessions and hearings filled with booby traps before finally reaching the golden idol of a final approval.
Parliamentary monitoring organizations and researchers are often interested in how various pieces of legislation survive in this environment and what are the strategies to either kill or aid them. This specifically means answering two questions: What is the probability of a bill being approved and what factors determine this probability?
The legislative process is usually hierarchical: Successful completion of a step in the process is conditioned by completion of all previous steps. Therefore, we may also want to know the probabilities of completion in each consecutive step and their determinants.
A simple way how to give a satisfying answer to these questions without wandering into the land of nonlinear logistic regressions is the Sankey diagram. It is a famous flow chart in which a process is visualized using arrows. Relative quantities of outcomes in the process are represented by arrows’ widths.
A famous example is a Sankey diagram of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. We can clearly see how the Grand Army was gradually shrinking as French soldiers were dying or defecting. Another well-known example is the Google Analytics flow chart. It shows how many visitors enter a webpage and then either leave or continue to a different page on the same website. As the number of consecutive steps increases, the number of visitors remaining on the website decreases.
The legislative process can be visualized in the same way. Progress of bills is represented by a stream between various steps in the process and width of the stream corresponds to quantities of bills. A bill can either complete all the steps of the process, or it can “drop out” of it at some point if it gets rejected.
Let’s take a look…”

The Tech Intellectuals

New Essay by Henry Farrell in Democracy: “A quarter of a century ago, Russell Jacoby lamented the demise of the public intellectual. The cause of death was an improvement in material conditions. Public intellectuals—Dwight Macdonald, I.F. Stone, and their like—once had little choice but to be independent. They had difficulty getting permanent well-paying jobs. However, as universities began to expand, they offered new opportunities to erstwhile unemployables. The academy demanded a high price. Intellectuals had to turn away from the public and toward the practiced obscurities of academic research and prose. In Jacoby’s description, these intellectuals “no longer need[ed] or want[ed] a larger public…. Campuses [were] their homes; colleagues their audience; monographs and specialized journals their media.”
Over the last decade, conditions have changed again. New possibilities are opening up for public intellectuals. Internet-fueled media such as blogs have made it much easier for aspiring intellectuals to publish their opinions. They have fostered the creation of new intellectual outlets (Jacobin, The New Inquiry, The Los Angeles Review of Books), and helped revitalize some old ones too (The Baffler, Dissent). Finally, and not least, they have provided the meat for a new set of arguments about how communications technology is reshaping society.
These debates have created opportunities for an emergent breed of professional argument-crafters: technology intellectuals. Like their predecessors of the 1950s and ’60s, they often make a living without having to work for a university. Indeed, the professoriate is being left behind. Traditional academic disciplines (except for law, which has a magpie-like fascination with new and shiny things) have had a hard time keeping up. New technologies, to traditionalists, are suspect: They are difficult to pin down within traditional academic boundaries, and they look a little too fashionable to senior academics, who are often nervous that their fields might somehow become publicly relevant.
Many of these new public intellectuals are more or less self-made. Others are scholars (often with uncomfortable relationships with the academy, such as Clay Shirky, an unorthodox professor who is skeptical that the traditional university model can survive). Others still are entrepreneurs, like technology and media writer and podcaster Jeff Jarvis, working the angles between public argument and emerging business models….
Different incentives would lead to different debates. In a better world, technology intellectuals might think more seriously about the relationship between technological change and economic inequality. Many technology intellectuals think of the culture of Silicon Valley as inherently egalitarian, yet economist James Galbraith argues that income inequality in the United States “has been driven by capital gains and stock options, mostly in the tech sector.”
They might think more seriously about how technology is changing politics. Current debates are still dominated by pointless arguments between enthusiasts who believe the Internet is a model for a radically better democracy, and skeptics who claim it is the dictator’s best friend.
Finally, they might pay more attention to the burgeoning relationship between technology companies and the U.S. government. Technology intellectuals like to think that a powerful technology sector can enhance personal freedom and constrain the excesses of government. Instead, we are now seeing how a powerful technology sector may enable government excesses. Without big semi-monopolies like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft to hoover up personal information, surveillance would be far more difficult for the U.S. government.
Debating these issues would require a more diverse group of technology intellectuals. The current crop are not diverse in some immediately obvious ways—there are few women, few nonwhites, and few non-English speakers who have ascended to the peak of attention. Yet there is also far less intellectual diversity than there ought to be. The core assumptions of public debates over technology get less attention than they need and deserve.”

Design for Multiple Motivations

in the Huffington Post: “Community is king for any collaboration platform or social network: Outcomes are primarily a function of the participating users and any software is strictly in their service.
With this in mind, when creating new platforms we define success criteria and ask ourselves who we might attract and engage. We ask ourselves where they congregate (online or offline) and ask what might motivate them to participate.
It’s often claimed that everyone’s incentives need to be the same in any successful system. However, no communities or individuals are identical, and their needs and interests will also differ. Instead, our experience has taught us that a site’s users might have wildly differing incentives and motivations, and if you value diverse input, that’s healthy…
I was fortunate to go to a lecture by Karim Lakhani of Harvard Business School when we began imagining OpenIDEO. He did a wonderful job of showing the range of potential incentives and motivations of different community members in this framework:


Given that we agreed inclusivity was a design principle for OpenIDEO, it followed that we should design as many of these intrinsic and extrinsic motivations into the platform as possible and that our primary job was to design a system in which they were all aligned toward the same common goal….More recently, as we have begun applying the OI Engine platform to enterprises we have been pleasantly surprised at the power of these non-financial motivations in driving contributions from employees. In fact, one client’s toughest challenge when selling the platform into his international bank was in convincing the managers that prizes weren’t required to drive employee contribution and might instead compromise collaboration. He was vindicated when thousands of employees actively engaged.”

Patients Take Control of Their Health Care Online

MIT Technology Review: “Patients are collaborating for better health — and, just maybe, radically reduced health-care costs….Not long ago, Sean Ahrens managed flare-ups of his Crohn’s disease—abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea—by calling his doctor and waiting a month for an appointment, only to face an inconclusive array of possible prescriptions. Today, he can call on 4,210 fellow patients in 66 countries who collaborate online to learn which treatments—drugs, diets, acupuncture, meditation, even do-it-yourself infusions of intestinal parasites —bring the most relief.
The online community Ahrens created and launched two years ago,, is one of the most closely watched experiments in digital health. It lets patients with Crohn’s, colitis, and other inflammatory bowel conditions track symptoms, trade information on different diets and remedies, and generally care for themselves.
The site is at the vanguard of the growing “e-patient” movement that is letting patients take control over their health decisions—and behavior—in ways that could fundamentally change the economics of health care. Investors are particularly interested in the role “peer-to-peer” social networks could play in the $3 trillion U.S. health-care market.

chronology chart

“Patients sharing data about how they feel, the type of treatments they’re using, and how well they’re working is a new behavior,” says Malay Gandhi, chief strategy officer of Rock Health, a San Francisco incubator for health-care startups that invested in “If you can get consumers to engage in their health for 15 to 30 minutes a day, there’s the largest opportunity in digital health care.”
Experts say when patients learn from each other, they tend to get fewer tests, make fewer doctors’ visits, and also demand better treatment. “It can lead to better quality, which in many cases will be way more affordable,” says Bob Kocher, an oncologist and former adviser to the Obama administration on health policy.”