How Tech Companies Can Advance Data Science for Social Good


Essay by Nick Martin: “As the world struggles to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the need for reliable data to track our progress is more important than ever. Government, civil society, and private sector organizations all play a role in producing, sharing, and using this data, but their information-gathering and -analysis efforts have been able to shed light on only 68 percent of the SDG indicators so far, according to a 2019 UN study.

To help fill the gap, the data science for social good (DSSG) movement has for years been making datasets about important social issues—such as health care infrastructure, school enrollment, air quality, and business registrations—available to trusted organizations or the public. Large tech companies such as Facebook, Google, Amazon, and others have recently begun to embrace the DSSG movement. Spurred on by advances in the field, the Development Data Partnership, the World Economic Forum’s 2030Vision consortium, and Data Collaboratives, they’re offering information about social media users’ mobility during COVID-19, cloud computing infrastructure to help nonprofits analyze large datasets, and other important tools and services.

But sharing data resources doesn’t mean they’ll be used effectively, if at all, to advance social impact. High-impact results require recipients of data assistance to inhabit a robust, holistic data ecosystem that includes assets like policies for safely handling data and the skills to analyze it. As tech firms become increasingly involved with using data and data science to help achieve the SDGs, it’s important that they understand the possibilities and limitations of the nonprofits and other civil society organizations they’re working with. Without a firm grasp on the data ecosystems of their partners, all the technical wizardry in the world may be for naught.

Companies must ask questions such as: What incentives or disincentives are in place for nonprofits to experiment with data science in their work? What gaps remain between what nonprofits or data scientists need and the resources funders provide? What skills must be developed? To help find answers, TechChange, an organization dedicated to using technology for social good, partnered with Project17, Facebook’s partnerships-led initiative to accelerate progress on the SDGs. Over the past six months, the team led interviews with top figures in the DSSG community from industry, academia, and the public sector. The 14 experts shared numerous insights into using data and data science to advance social good and the SDGs. Four takeaways emerged from our conversations and research…(More)”.

The Hype Machine


Book by Sinan Aral on “How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy, and Our Health–and How We Must Adapt”: “Drawing on two decades of his own research and business experience, Aral goes under the hood of the biggest, most powerful social networks to tackle the critical question of just how much social media actually shapes our choices, for better or worse. Aral shows how the tech behind social media offers the same set of behavior-influencing levers to both Russian hackers and brand marketers—to everyone who hopes to change the way we think and act—which is why its consequences affect everything from elections to business, dating to health. Along the way, he covers a wide array of topics, including how network effects fuel Twitter’s and Facebook’s massive growth to the neuroscience of how social media affects our brains, the real impact of fake news, the power of social ratings, and the effect of social media on our kids.

In mapping out strategies for being more thoughtful consumers of social media, The Hype Machine offers the definitive guide to understanding and harnessing for good the technology that has redefined our world overnight…(More)”.

If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future


Book by Jill Lepore: “The Simulmatics Corporation, launched during the Cold War, mined data, targeted voters, manipulated consumers, destabilized politics, and disordered knowledge—decades before Facebook, Google, and Cambridge Analytica. Jill Lepore, best-selling author of These Truths, came across the company’s papers in MIT’s archives and set out to tell this forgotten history, the long-lost backstory to the methods, and the arrogance, of Silicon Valley.

Founded in 1959 by some of the nation’s leading social scientists—“the best and the brightest, fatally brilliant, Icaruses with wings of feathers and wax, flying to the sun”—Simulmatics proposed to predict and manipulate the future by way of the computer simulation of human behavior. In summers, with their wives and children in tow, the company’s scientists met on the beach in Long Island under a geodesic, honeycombed dome, where they built a “People Machine” that aimed to model everything from buying a dishwasher to counterinsurgency to casting a vote. Deploying their “People Machine” from New York, Washington, Cambridge, and even Saigon, Simulmatics’ clients included the John F. Kennedy presidential campaign, the New York Times, the Department of Defense, and dozens of major manufacturers: Simulmatics had a hand in everything from political races to the Vietnam War to the Johnson administration’s ill-fated attempt to predict race riots. The company’s collapse was almost as rapid as its ascent, a collapse that involved failed marriages, a suspicious death, and bankruptcy. Exposed for false claims, and even accused of war crimes, it closed its doors in 1970 and all but vanished. Until Lepore came across the records of its remains.

The scientists of Simulmatics believed they had invented “the A-bomb of the social sciences.” They did not predict that it would take decades to detonate, like a long-buried grenade. But, in the early years of the twenty-first century, that bomb did detonate, creating a world in which corporations collect data and model behavior and target messages about the most ordinary of decisions, leaving people all over the world, long before the global pandemic, crushed by feelings of helplessness. This history has a past; If Then is its cautionary tale….(More)”.

Privacy in Pandemic: Law, Technology, and Public Health in the COVID-19 Crisis


Paper by Tiffany C. Li: “The COVID-19 pandemic has caused millions of deaths and disastrous consequences around the world, with lasting repercussions for every field of law, including privacy and technology. The unique characteristics of this pandemic have precipitated an increase in use of new technologies, including remote communications platforms, healthcare robots, and medical AI. Public and private actors are using new technologies, like heat sensing, and technologically-influenced programs, like contact tracing, alike in response, leading to a rise in government and corporate surveillance in sectors like healthcare, employment, education, and commerce. Advocates have raised the alarm for privacy and civil liberties violations, but the emergency nature of the pandemic has drowned out many concerns.

This Article is the first comprehensive account of privacy impacts related to technology and public health responses to the COVID-19 crisis. Many have written on the general need for better health privacy protections, education privacy protections, consumer privacy protections, and protections against government and corporate surveillance. However, this Article is the first comprehensive article to examine these problems of privacy and technology specifically in light of the pandemic, arguing that the lens of the pandemic exposes the need for both widescale and small-scale reform of privacy law. This Article approaches these problems with a focus on technical realities and social salience, and with a critical awareness of digital and political inequities, crafting normative recommendations with these concepts in mind.

Understanding privacy in this time of pandemic is critical for law and policymaking in the near future and for the long-term goals of creating a future society that protects both civil liberties and public health. It is also important to create a contemporary scholarly understanding of privacy in pandemic at this moment in time, as a matter of historical record. By examining privacy in pandemic, in the midst of pandemic, this Article seeks to create a holistic scholarly foundation for future work on privacy, technology, public health, and legal responses to global crises….(More)”

Data Privacy Increasingly a Focus of National Security Reviews


Paper by Tamara Ehs, and Monika Mokre: “The yellow vest movement started in November 2018 and has formed the longest protest movement in France since 1945. The movement provoked different reactions of the French government—on the one hand, violence and repression; on the other hand, concessions. One of them was to provide a possibility for citizens’ participation by organizing the so-called “Grand Débat.” It was clear to all observers that this was less an attempt to further democracy in France than to calm down the protests of the yellow vests. Thus, it seemed doubtful from the beginning whether this form of participatory democracy could be understood as a real form of citizens’ deliberation, and in fact, several shortcomings with regard to procedure and participation were pointed out by theorists of deliberative democracy. The aim of this article is to analyze the Grand Débat with regard to its deliberative qualities and shortcomings….(More)”.

US Government Guide to Global Sharing of Personal Information


Book by IAPP: “The Guide to U.S. Government Practice on Global Sharing of Personal Information, Third Edition is a reference tool on U.S. government practice in G2G-sharing arrangements. The third edition contains new agreements, including the U.S.-U.K. Cloud Act Agreement, EU-U.S. Umbrella Agreement, United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, and EU-U.S. Privacy Shield framework. This book examines those agreements as a way of establishing how practice has evolved. In addition to reviewing past agreements, international privacy principles of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation will be reviewed for their relevance to G2G sharing. The guide is intended for lawyers, privacy professionals and individuals who wish to understand U.S. practice for sharing personal information across borders….(More)”.

How Billionaires Can Fund Moonshot Efforts to Save the World


Essay by Ivan Amato: “For the past year, since the 50th anniversary of the original moon landing and amid the harsh entrance and unfolding of a pandemic that has affected the entire globe’s citizenry, I have been running a philanthropy-supported publishing experiment on Medium.com titled the Moonshot CatalogThe goal has been to inspire the nation’s more than 2,000 ultrawealthy households to mobilize a smidgeon more — even 1 percent more — of their collective wealth to help solve big problems that threaten our future.

A single percent may seem a small fraction to devote. But when you consider that the richest families have amassed a net worth of more than $4 trillion, that 1 percent tops $40 billion — enough to make a real difference in any number of ways. This truth only magnifies now as we approach a more honest reality-based acknowledgment of the systemic racial and social inequities and injustices that have shunted so much wealth, privilege, and security into such a rarefied micropercentage of the world’s 7.8 billion people.

Such was the simple conceit underlying the Moonshot Catalog, which just came to a close: The deepest pocketed among us would up their philanthropy game if they were more aware of hugely consequential projects they could help usher to the finish line by donating a tad more of the wealth they control….

The first moonshot articles had titles including “Feeding 2050’s Ten Billion People,” “Taming the Diseases of Aging,” and the now tragically premonitional “Ending Pandemic Disease.” Subsequent articles featured achievable solutions for our carbon-emission crisis, including ones replacing current cement and cooling technologies, underappreciated perpetrators of climate change that are responsible for some 16 percent of the world’s carbon emissions; next-generation battery technology, without which much of the potential benefit of renewable energy will remain untapped; advanced nuclear-power plants safe enough to help enable a carbon-neutral economy; and hastening the arrival of fusion energy….

Common to these projects, and others such as the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals, is the huge and difficult commitment each one demands. Many require a unique, creative, and sustained synthesis of science, engineering, entrepreneurship, policy and financial support, and international cooperation.

But there is no magical thinking in the Catalog. The projects are demonstrably doable. What’s more, humanity already has successfully taken on comparably ambitious challenges. Think of the eradication of polio, the development of birth-control technologies, the mitigation of acid rain and the ozone hole, and the great, albeit imperfect, public-health win of municipal water treatment. Oh, and the 1969 moonshot….(More)”.

Statistics, lies and the virus: lessons from a pandemic


Tim Hartford at the Financial Times: “Will this year be 1954 all over again? Forgive me, I have become obsessed with 1954, not because it offers another example of a pandemic (that was 1957) or an economic disaster (there was a mild US downturn in 1953), but for more parochial reasons. Nineteen fifty-four saw the appearance of two contrasting visions for the world of statistics — visions that have shaped our politics, our media and our health. This year confronts us with a similar choice.

The first of these visions was presented in How to Lie with Statistics, a book by a US journalist named Darrell Huff. Brisk, intelligent and witty, it is a little marvel of numerical communication. The book received rave reviews at the time, has been praised by many statisticians over the years and is said to be the best-selling work on the subject ever published. It is also an exercise in scorn: read it and you may be disinclined to believe a number-based claim ever again….

But they can — and back in 1954, the alternative perspective was embodied in the publication of an academic paper by the British epidemiologists Richard Doll and Austin Bradford Hill. They marshalled some of the first compelling evidence that smoking cigarettes dramatically increases the risk of lung cancer. The data they assembled persuaded both men to quit smoking and helped save tens of millions of lives by prompting others to do likewise. This was no statistical trickery, but a contribution to public health that is almost impossible to exaggerate…

As described in books such as Merchants of Doubt by Erik Conway and Naomi Oreskes, this industry perfected the tactics of spreading uncertainty: calling for more research, emphasising doubt and the need to avoid drastic steps, highlighting disagreements between experts and funding alternative lines of inquiry. The same tactics, and sometimes even the same personnel, were later deployed to cast doubt on climate science. These tactics are powerful in part because they echo the ideals of science.

It is a short step from the Royal Society’s motto, “nullius in verba” (take nobody’s word for it), to the corrosive nihilism of “nobody knows anything”.  So will 2020 be another 1954? From the point of view of statistics, we seem to be standing at another fork in the road.

The disinformation is still out there, as the public understanding of Covid-19 has been muddied by conspiracy theorists, trolls and government spin doctors.  Yet the information is out there too. The value of gathering and rigorously analysing data has rarely been more evident. Faced with a complete mystery at the start of the year, statisticians, scientists and epidemiologists have been working miracles. I hope that we choose the right fork, because the pandemic has lessons to teach us about statistics — and vice versa — if we are willing to learn…(More)”.

Monitoring global digital gender inequality using the online populations of Facebook and Google


Paper by Ridhi Kashyap, Masoomali Fatehkia, Reham Al Tamime, and Ingmar Weber: “Background: In recognition of the empowering potential of digital technologies, gender equality in internet access and digital skills is an important target in the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Gender-disaggregated data on internet use are limited, particularly in less developed countries.

Objective: We leverage anonymous, aggregate data on the online populations of Google and Facebook users available from their advertising platforms to fill existing data gaps and measure global digital gender inequality.

Methods: We generate indicators of country-level gender gaps on Google and Facebook. Using these online indicators independently and in combination with offline development indicators, we build regression models to predict gender gaps in internet use and digital skills computed using available survey data from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

Results: We find that women are significantly underrepresented in the online populations of Google and Facebook in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. These platform-specific gender gaps are a strong predictor that women lack internet access and basic digital skills in these populations. Comparing platforms, we find Facebook gender gap indicators perform better than Google indicators at predicting ITU internet use and low-level digital-skill gender gaps. Models using these online indicators outperform those using only offline development indicators. The best performing models, however, are those that combine Facebook and Google online indicators with a country’s development indicators such as the Human Development Index….(More)”.

Building Capacity for Evidence-Informed Policy-Making


OECD Report: “This report analyses the skills and capacities governments need to strengthen evidence-informed policy-making (EIPM) and identifies a range of possible interventions that are available to foster greater uptake of evidence. Increasing governments’ capacity for evidence-informed is a critical part of good public governance. However, an effective connection between the supply and the demand for evidence in the policy-making process remains elusive. This report offers concrete tools and a set of good practices for how the public sector can support senior officials, experts and advisors working at the political/administrative interface. This support entails investing in capability, opportunity and motivation and through behavioral changes. The report identifies a core skillset for EIPM at the individual level, including the capacity for understanding, obtaining, assessing, using, engaging with stakeholders, and applying evidence, which was developed in collaboration with the European Commission Joint Research Centre. It also identifies a set of capacities at the organisational level that can be put in place across the machinery of government, throughout the role of interventions, strategies and tools to strengthen these capacities. The report concludes with a set of recommendations to assist governments in building their capacities…(More)”.