Resilience in the Digital Age


Book edited by Fred S. Roberts and Igor A. Sheremet: “The growth of a global digital economy has enabled rapid communication, instantaneous movement of funds, and availability of vast amounts of information. With this come challenges such as the vulnerability of digitalized sociotechnological systems (STSs) to destructive events (earthquakes, disease events, terrorist attacks). Similar issues arise for disruptions to complex linked natural and social systems (from changing climates, evolving urban environments, etc.). This book explores new approaches to the resilience of sociotechnological and natural-social systems in a digital world of big data, extraordinary computing capacity, and rapidly developing methods of Artificial Intelligence….

The world-wide COVID-19 pandemic illustrates the vulnerability of our healthcare systems, supply chains, and social infrastructure, and confronts our notions of what makes a system resilient. We have found that use of AI tools can lead to problems when unexpected events occur. On the other hand, the vast amounts of data available from sensors, satellite images, social media, etc. can also be used to make modern systems more resilient.

Papers in the book explore disruptions of complex networks and algorithms that minimize departure from a previous state after a disruption; introduce a multigrammatical framework for the technological and resource bases of today’s large-scale industrial systems and the transformations resulting from disruptive events; and explain how robotics can enhance pre-emptive measures or post-disaster responses to increase resiliency. Other papers explore current directions in data processing and handling and principles of FAIRness in data; how the availability of large amounts of data can aid in the development of resilient STSs and challenges to overcome in doing so. The book also addresses interactions between humans and built environments, focusing on how AI can inform today’s smart and connected buildings and make them resilient, and how AI tools can increase resilience to misinformation and its dissemination….(More)”.

E-mail Is Making Us Miserable


Cal Newport at The New Yorker: “In early 2017, a French labor law went into effect that attempted to preserve the so-called right to disconnect. Companies with fifty or more employees were required to negotiate specific policies about the use of e-mail after work hours, with the goal of reducing the time that workers spent in their in-boxes during the evening or over the weekend. Myriam El Khomri, the minister of labor at the time, justified the new law, in part, as a necessary step to reduce burnout. The law is unwieldy, but it points toward a universal problem, one that’s become harder to avoid during the recent shift toward a more frenetic and improvisational approach to work: e-mail is making us miserable.

To study the effects of e-mail, a team led by researchers from the University of California, Irvine, hooked up forty office workers to wireless heart-rate monitors for around twelve days. They recorded the subjects’ heart-rate variability, a common technique for measuring mental stress. They also monitored the employees’ computer use, which allowed them to correlate e-mail checks with stress levels. What they found would not surprise the French. “The longer one spends on email in [a given] hour the higher is one’s stress for that hour,” the authors noted. In another study, researchers placed thermal cameras below each subject’s computer monitor, allowing them to measure the tell-tale “heat blooms” on a person’s face that indicate psychological distress. They discovered that batching in-box checks—a commonly suggested “solution” to improving one’s experience with e-mail—is not necessarily a panacea. For those people who scored highly in the trait of neuroticism, batching e-mails actually made them more stressed, perhaps because of worry about all of the urgent messages they were ignoring. The researchers also found that people answered e-mails more quickly when under stress but with less care—a text-analysis program called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count revealed that these anxious e-mails were more likely to contain words that expressed anger. “While email use certainly saves people time effort in communicating, it also comes at a cost, the authors of the two studies concluded. Their recommendation? To “suggest that organizations make a concerted effort to cut down on email traffic.”

Other researchers have found similar connections between e-mail and unhappiness. A study, published in 2019, looked at long-term trends in the health of a group of nearly five thousand Swedish workers. They found that repeated exposure to “high information and communication technology demands” (translation: a need to be constantly connected) were associated with “suboptimal” health outcomes. This trend persisted even after they adjusted the statistics for potential complicating factors such as age, sex, socioeconomic status, health behavior, body-mass index, job strain, and social support. Of course, we don’t really need data to capture something that so many of us feel intuitively. I recently surveyed the readers of my blog about e-mail. “It’s slow and very frustrating. . . . I often feel like email is impersonal and a waste of time,” one respondent said. “I’m frazzled—just keeping up,” another admitted. Some went further. “I feel an almost uncontrollable need to stop what I’m doing to check email,” one person reported. “It makes me very depressed, anxious and frustrated.”…(More)”

Lessons from a year of Covid


Essay by Yuval Noah Harari in the Financial Times: “…The Covid year has exposed an even more important limitation of our scientific and technological power. Science cannot replace politics. When we come to decide on policy, we have to take into account many interests and values, and since there is no scientific way to determine which interests and values are more important, there is no scientific way to decide what we should do.

For example, when deciding whether to impose a lockdown, it is not sufficient to ask: “How many people will fall sick with Covid-19 if we don’t impose the lockdown?”. We should also ask: “How many people will experience depression if we do impose a lockdown? How many people will suffer from bad nutrition? How many will miss school or lose their job? How many will be battered or murdered by their spouses?”

Even if all our data is accurate and reliable, we should always ask: “What do we count? Who decides what to count? How do we evaluate the numbers against each other?” This is a political rather than scientific task. It is politicians who should balance the medical, economic and social considerations and come up with a comprehensive policy.

Similarly, engineers are creating new digital platforms that help us function in lockdown, and new surveillance tools that help us break the chains of infection. But digitalisation and surveillance jeopardise our privacy and open the way for the emergence of unprecedented totalitarian regimes. In 2020, mass surveillance has become both more legitimate and more common. Fighting the epidemic is important, but is it worth destroying our freedom in the process? It is the job of politicians rather than engineers to find the right balance between useful surveillance and dystopian nightmares.

Three basic rules can go a long way in protecting us from digital dictatorships, even in a time of plague. First, whenever you collect data on people — especially on what is happening inside their own bodies — this data should be used to help these people rather than to manipulate, control or harm them. My personal physician knows many extremely private things about me. I am OK with it, because I trust my physician to use this data for my benefit. My physician shouldn’t sell this data to any corporation or political party. It should be the same with any kind of “pandemic surveillance authority” we might establish….(More)”.

Information: A Historical Companion


Book edited by Ann Blair, Paul Duguid, Anja-Silvia Goeing, and Anthony Grafton: “Thanks to modern technological advances, we now enjoy seemingly unlimited access to information. Yet how did information become so central to our everyday lives, and how did its processing and storage make our data-driven era possible? This volume is the first to consider these questions in comprehensive detail, tracing the global emergence of information practices, technologies, and more, from the premodern era to the present. With entries spanning archivists to algorithms and scribes to surveilling, this is the ultimate reference on how information has shaped and been shaped by societies.

Written by an international team of experts, the book’s inspired and original long- and short-form contributions reconstruct the rise of human approaches to creating, managing, and sharing facts and knowledge. Thirteen full-length chapters discuss the role of information in pivotal epochs and regions, with chief emphasis on Europe and North America, but also substantive treatment of other parts of the world as well as current global interconnections. More than 100 alphabetical entries follow, focusing on specific tools, methods, and concepts—from ancient coins to the office memo, and censorship to plagiarism. The result is a wide-ranging, deeply immersive collection that will appeal to anyone drawn to the story behind our modern mania for an informed existence….(More)”.

Surveillance and the ‘New Normal’ of Covid-19: Public Health, Data, and Justice


Report by the Social Science Research Council: “The Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically altered the way nations around the world use technology in public health. As the virus spread globally, some nations responded by closing businesses, shuttering schools, limiting gatherings, and banning travel. Many also deployed varied technological tools and systems to track virus exposure, monitor outbreaks, and aggregate hospital data.

Some regions are still grappling with crisis-level conditions, and others are struggling to navigate the complexities of vaccine rollouts. Amid the upheavals, communities are adjusting to a new normal, in which mask-wearing has become as commonplace as seatbelt use and digital temperature checks are a routine part of entering public buildings.

Even as the frenzy of emergency responses begins to subside, the emergent forms of surveillance that have accompanied this new normal persist. As a consequence, societies face new questions about how to manage the monitoring systems created in response to the virus, what processes are required in order to immunize populations, and what new norms the systems have generated. How they answer these questions will have long-term impacts on civil liberties, governance, and the role of technology in society. The systems implemented amid the public health emergency could jeopardize individual freedoms and exacerbate harms to already vulnerable groups, particularly if they are adapted to operate as permanent social management tools. At the same time, growing public awareness about the impact of public health technologies could also provide a catalyst for strengthening democratic engagement and demonstrating the urgency of improving governance systems. As the world transitions in and out of pandemic crisis modes, there is an opportunity to think broadly about strengthening public health systems, policymaking, and the underlying structure of our social compacts.

The stakes are high: an enduring lesson from history is that moments of crisis often recast the roles of governments and the rights of individuals. Moments of crisis often recast the roles of governments and the rights of individuals.In this moment of flux, the Social Science Research Council calls on policymakers, technologists, data scientists, health experts, academics, activists, and communities around the world to assess the implications of this transformation and seize opportunities for positive social change. The Council seeks to facilitate a shift from reactive modes of crisis response to more strategic forms of deliberation among varied stakeholders. As such, it has convened discussions and directed research in order to better understand the intersection of governance and technologically enabled surveillance in conditions of public health emergencies. Through these activities, the Council aims to provide analysis that can help foster societies that are more resilient, democratic, and inclusive and can, therefore, better withstand future crises.

With these goals in mind, the Council convened a cross-disciplinary, multinational group of experts in the summer of 2020 to survey the landscape of human rights and social justice with regard to technologically driven public health practices. The resulting group—the Public Health, Surveillance, and Human Rights (PHSHR) Network—raised a broad range of questions about governance, social inequalities, data protection, medical systems, and community norms: What rules should govern the sharing of personal health data? How should the efficacy of public health interventions be weighed against the emergence and expansion of new forms of surveillance? How much control should multinational corporations have in designing and implementing nations’ public health technology systems? These are among the questions that pushed members to think beyond traditional professional, geographic, and intellectual boundaries….(More)”.

Power to the People


Book by Kurth Cronin on “How Open Technological Innovation is Arming Tomorrow’s Terrorists…Never have so many possessed the means to be so lethal. The diffusion of modern technology (robotics, cyber weapons, 3-D printing, autonomous systems, and artificial intelligence) to ordinary people has given them access to weapons of mass violence previously monopolized by the state. In recent years, states have attempted to stem the flow of such weapons to individuals and non-state groups, but their efforts are failing.

As Audrey Kurth Cronin explains in Power to the People, what we are seeing now is an exacerbation of an age-old trend. Over the centuries, the most surprising developments in warfare have occurred because of advances in technologies combined with changes in who can use them. Indeed, accessible innovations in destructive force have long driven new patterns of political violence. When Nobel invented dynamite and Kalashnikov designed the AK-47, each inadvertently spurred terrorist and insurgent movements that killed millions and upended the international system.

That history illuminates our own situation, in which emerging technologies are altering society and redistributing power. The twenty-first century “sharing economy” has already disrupted every institution, including the armed forces. New “open” technologies are transforming access to the means of violence. Just as importantly, higher-order functions that previously had been exclusively under state military control – mass mobilization, force projection, and systems integration – are being harnessed by non-state actors. Cronin closes by focusing on how to respond so that we both preserve the benefits of emerging technologies yet reduce the risks. Power, in the form of lethal technology, is flowing to the people, but the same technologies that empower can imperil global security – unless we act strategically….(More)”.

Inside the ‘Wikipedia of Maps,’ Tensions Grow Over Corporate Influence


Corey Dickinson at Bloomberg: “What do Lyft, Facebook, the International Red Cross, the U.N., the government of Nepal and Pokémon Go have in common? They all use the same source of geospatial data: OpenStreetMap, a free, open-source online mapping service akin to Google Maps or Apple Maps. But unlike those corporate-owned mapping platforms, OSM is built on a network of mostly volunteer contributors. Researchers have described it as the “Wikipedia for maps.”

Since it launched in 2004, OpenStreetMap has become an essential part of the world’s technology infrastructure. Hundreds of millions of monthly users interact with services derived from its data, from ridehailing apps, to social media geotagging on Snapchat and Instagram, to humanitarian relief operations in the wake of natural disasters. 

But recently the map has been changing, due the growing impact of private sector companies that rely on it. In a 2019 paper published in the ISPRS International Journal of Geo-Information, a cross-institutional team of researchers traced how Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and other companies have gained prominence as editors of the map. Their priorities, the researchers say, are driving significant change to what is being mapped compared to the past. 

“OpenStreetMap’s data is crowdsourced, which has always made spectators to the project a bit wary about the quality of the data,” says Dipto Sarkar, a professor of geoscience at Carleton University in Ottawa, and one of the paper’s co-authors. “As the data becomes more valuable and is used for an ever-increasing list of projects, the integrity of the information has to be almost perfect. These companies need to make sure there’s a good map of the places they want to expand in, and nobody else is offering that, so they’ve decided to fill it in themselves.”…(More)”.

Critical Perspectives on Open Development


Book edited by Arul Chib, Caitlin M. Bentley, and Matthew L. Smith: “Over the last ten years, “open” innovations—the sharing of information and communications resources without access restrictions or cost—have emerged within international development. But do these innovations empower poor and marginalized populations? This book examines whether, for whom, and under what circumstances the free, networked, public sharing of information and communication resources contribute (or not) toward a process of positive social transformation. The contributors offer cross-cutting theoretical frameworks and empirical analyses that cover a broad range of applications, emphasizing the underlying aspects of open innovations that are shared across contexts and domains.

The book first outlines theoretical frameworks that span knowledge stewardship, trust, situated learning, identity, participation, and power decentralization. It then investigates these frameworks across a range of institutional and country contexts, considering each in terms of the key emancipatory principles and structural impediments it seeks to address. Taken together, the chapters offer an empirically tested theoretical direction for the field….(More)”.

A definition, benchmark and database of AI for social good initiatives


Paper by Josh Cowls, Andreas Tsamados, Mariarosaria Taddeo & Luciano Floridi: “Initiatives relying on artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver socially beneficial outcomes—AI for social good (AI4SG)—are on the rise. However, existing attempts to understand and foster AI4SG initiatives have so far been limited by the lack of normative analyses and a shortage of empirical evidence. In this Perspective, we address these limitations by providing a definition of AI4SG and by advocating the use of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a benchmark for tracing the scope and spread of AI4SG. We introduce a database of AI4SG projects gathered using this benchmark, and discuss several key insights, including the extent to which different SDGs are being addressed. This analysis makes possible the identification of pressing problems that, if left unaddressed, risk hampering the effectiveness of AI4SG initiatives….(More)”.

Public-Private Partnerships: Compound and Data Sharing in Drug Discovery and Development


Paper by Andrew M. Davis et al: “Collaborative efforts between public and private entities such as academic institutions, governments, and pharmaceutical companies form an integral part of scientific research, and notable instances of such initiatives have been created within the life science community. Several examples of alliances exist with the broad goal of collaborating toward scientific advancement and improved public welfare. Such collaborations can be essential in catalyzing breaking areas of science within high-risk or global public health strategies that may have otherwise not progressed. A common term used to describe these alliances is public-private partnership (PPP). This review discusses different aspects of such partnerships in drug discovery/development and provides example applications as well as successful case studies. Specific areas that are covered include PPPs for sharing compounds at various phases of the drug discovery process—from compound collections for hit identification to sharing clinical candidates. Instances of PPPs to support better data integration and build better machine learning models are also discussed. The review also provides examples of PPPs that address the gap in knowledge or resources among involved parties and advance drug discovery, especially in disease areas with unfulfilled and/or social needs, like neurological disorders, cancer, and neglected and rare diseases….(More)”.