The Data Assembly


Press Release: “The Governance Lab (The GovLab), an action research center at New York University Tandon School of Engineering, with the support of the Henry Luce Foundation, announced the creation of The Data Assembly. Beginning in New York City, the effort will explore how communities perceive the risks and benefits of data re-use for COVID-19. Understanding that policymakers often lack information about the concerns of different stakeholders, The Data Assembly’s deliberations will inform the creation of a responsible data re-use framework to guide the use of data and technology at the city and state level to fight COVID-19’s many consequences.

The Data Assembly will hold deliberations with civil rights organizations, key data holders and policymakers, and the public at large. Consultations with these stakeholders will take place through a series of remote engagements, including surveys and an online town hall meeting. This work will allow the project to consider the perspectives of people from different strata of society and how they might exercise some control over the flow of data.

After the completion of these data re-use deliberations, The Data Assembly will create a path forward for using data responsibly to solve public challenges. The first phases of the project will commence in New York City, seeking to engage with city residents and their leaders on data governance issues. 

“Data is increasingly the primary format for sharing information to understand crises and plan recovery efforts; empowering everyone to better understand how data is collected and how it should be used is paramount,” said Adrienne Schmoeker, Director of Civic Engagement & Strategy and Deputy Chief Analytics Officer at the NYC Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics. “We look forward to learning from the insights gathered by the GovLab through The Data Assembly work they are conducting in New York City.”…(More)”.

Exploring Blockchain Technology for Government Transparency


Report by the World Economic Forum: “The costs to society of public-sector corruption and weak accountability are staggering. In many parts of the world, public-sector corruption is the single-largest challenge, stifling social, economic and environmental development. Often, corruption centres around a lack of transparency, inadequate record-keeping and low public accountability.

Blockchain and distributed ledger technologies, when applied thoughtfully to certain corruption-prone government processes, can potentially increase transparency and accountability in these systems, reducing the risk or prevalence of corrupt activity.

In partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the Office of the Inspector General of Colombia (Procuraduría General de Colombia), the Forum has led a multistakeholder team to investigate, design and trial the use of blockchain technology for corruption-prone government processes, anchored in the use case of public procurement.

Using cryptography and distributed consensus mechanisms, blockchain provides the unique combination of permanent and tamper-evident record-keeping, transaction transparency and auditability, automated functions with “smart contracts”, and the reduction of centralized authority and information ownership within processes. These properties make blockchain a high potential emerging technology to address corruption. The project chose to focus on the public procurement process because it constitutes one of the largest sites of corruption globally, stands to benefit from these technology properties and plays a significant role in serving public interest…(More)”.

Humankind: A Hopeful History


Book by Rutger Bregman: “This is a book about a radical idea.

An idea that’s long been known to make rulers nervous. An idea denied by religions and ideologies, ignored by the news media and erased from the annals of world history.

At the same time, it’s an idea that’s legitimized by virtually every branch of science. One that’s corroborated by evolution and confirmed by everyday life. An idea so intrinsic to human nature that it goes unnoticed and gets overlooked.

If only we had the courage to take it more seriously, it’s an idea that might just start a revolution. Turn society on its head. Because once you grasp what it really means, it’s nothing less than a mind-bending drug that ensures you’ll never look at the world the same again. So what is this radical idea?

That most people, deep down, are pretty decent…(More)”.

How to Sustain Your Activism Against Police Brutality Beyond this Moment


Article by Bethany Gordon: “…Despite the haunting nature of these details and the different features of this moment, I am worried that empathetic voices lifting up this cause will quiet too soon for lasting change to occur. But it doesn’t have to happen this way. Gaining a better understanding of the empathy we feel in these moments of awareness and advocacy can help us take a more behaviorally sustainable approach.

Empathy is a complex psychological phenomenon, describing eight distinct ways that we respond to one another’s experiences and emotions, but most commonly defined in the dictionary as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Using this broader definition, scholars and activists have debated how effective empathy is as a tool for behavior change—particularly when it comes to fighting racism. Paul Bloom argues that empathy allows our bias to drive our decision-making, bell hooks states that empathy is not a promising avenue to systemic racial change, and Alisha Gaines analyzes how an overemphasis on racial empathy in a 1944 landmark study, “An American Dilemma,” led to a blindness about the impact of systemic and institutional racial barriers. This more general understanding and application of empathy has not been an effective aid to fighting systemic oppression and has led to a lot of (well-meaning?) blackface.

A more nuanced understanding of empathy—and its related concepts—may help us use it more effectively in the fight against racism. There are two strains of empathy that are relevant to the George Floyd protests and can help us better understand (and possibly change) our response: empathic distress and empathic concern, also known as compassion.

Empathic distress is a type of empathy we feel when we are disturbed by witnessing another’s suffering. Empathic distress is an egocentric response—a reaction that places our own well-being at its center. When we’re motivated to act through empathic distress, our ultimate goal is to alleviate our own suffering. This may mean we take action to help another person, but it could also mean we distract ourselves from their suffering.

Compassion is a type of empathy that is other-oriented. Compassion operates when you feel for another person rather than being distressed by their suffering, thereby making your ultimate goal about fixing the actual problem….(More)’

How Data Can Map and Make Racial Inequality More Visible (If Done Responsibly)


Reflection Document by The GovLab: “Racism is a systemic issue that pervades every aspect of life in the United States and around the world. In recent months, its corrosive influence has been made starkly visible, especially on Black people. Many people are hurting. Their rage and suffering stem from centuries of exclusion and from being subject to repeated bias and violence. Across the country, there have been protests decrying racial injustice. Activists have called upon the government to condemn bigotry and racism, to act against injustice, to address systemic and growing inequality.

Institutions need to take meaningful action to address such demands. Though racism is not experienced in the same way by all communities of color, policymakers must respond to the anxieties and apprehensions of Black people as well as those of communities of color more generally. This work will require institutions and individuals to reflect on how they may be complicit in perpetuating structural and systematic inequalities and harm and to ask better questions about the inequities that exist in society (laid bare in both recent acts of violence and in racial disadvantages in health outcomes during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis). This work is necessary but unlikely to be easy. As Rashida Richardson, Director of Policy Research at the AI Now Institute at NYU notes:

“Social and political stratifications also persist and worsen because they are embedded into our social and legal systems and structures. Thus, it is difficult for most people to see and understand how bias and inequalities have been automated or operationalized over time.”

We believe progress can be made, at least in part, through responsible data access and analysis, including increased availability of (disaggregated) data through data collaboration. Of course, data is only one part of the overall picture, and we make no claims that data alone can solve such deeply entrenched problems. Nonetheless, data can have an impact by making inequalities resulting from racism more quantifiable and inaction less excusable.

…Prioritizing any of these topics will also require increased community engagement and participatory agenda setting. Likewise, we are deeply conscious that data can have a negative as well as positive impact and that technology can perpetuate racism when designed and implemented without the input and participation of minority communities and organizations. While our report here focuses on the promise of data, we need to remain aware of the potential to weaponize data against vulnerable and already disenfranchised communities. In addition, (hidden) biases in data collected and used in AI algorithms, as well as in a host of other areas across the data life cycle, will only exacerbate racial inequalities if not addressed….(More)”

ALSO: The piece is supplemented by a crowdsourced listing of Data-Driven Efforts to Address Racial Inequality.

Tribalism Comes for Pandemic Science



Yuval Levin at The New Atlantis: “he Covid-19 pandemic has tested our society in countless ways. From the health system to the school system, the economy, government, and family life, we have confronted some enormous and unfamiliar challenges. But many of these stresses are united by the need to constantly adapt to new information and evidence and accept that any knowledge we might have is only provisional. This demands a kind of humble restraint — on the part of public health experts, political leaders, and the public at large — that our society now finds very hard to muster.

The virus is novel, so our understanding of what responding to it might require of us has had to be built on the fly. But the polarized culture war that pervades so much of our national life has made this kind of learning very difficult. Views developed in response to provisional assessments of incomplete evidence quickly rigidify as they are transformed into tribal markers and then cultural weapons. Soon there are left-wing and right-wing views on whether to wear masks, whether particular drugs are effective, or how to think about social distancing.

New evidence is taken as an assault on these tribal commitments, and policy adjustments in response are seen as forms of surrender to the enemy. Every new piece of information gets filtered through partisan sieves, implicitly examined to see whose interest it serves, and then embraced or rejected on that basis. We all do this. You’re probably doing it right now — skimming quickly to the end of this piece to see if I’m criticizing you or only those other people who behave so irresponsibly….(More)”.

Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code


Book by Ruha Benjamin: “From everyday apps to complex algorithms, Ruha Benjamin cuts through tech-industry hype to understand how emerging technologies can reinforce White supremacy and deepen social inequity.

Benjamin argues that automation, far from being a sinister story of racist programmers scheming on the dark web, has the potential to hide, speed up, and deepen discrimination while appearing neutral and even benevolent when compared to the racism of a previous era. Presenting the concept of the “New Jim Code,” she shows how a range of discriminatory designs encode inequity by explicitly amplifying racial hierarchies; by ignoring but thereby replicating social divisions; or by aiming to fix racial bias but ultimately doing quite the opposite. Moreover, she makes a compelling case for race itself as a kind of technology, designed to stratify and sanctify social injustice in the architecture of everyday life.

This illuminating guide provides conceptual tools for decoding tech promises with sociologically informed skepticism. In doing so, it challenges us to question not only the technologies we are sold but also the ones we ourselves manufacture….(More)”.

Centering Racial Equity Throughout Data Integration


Toolkit by AISP: “Societal “progress” is often marked by the construction of new infrastructure that fuels change and innovation. Just as railroads and interstate highways were the defining infrastructure projects of the 1800 and 1900s, the development of data infrastructure is a critical innovation of our century. Railroads and highways were drivers of development and prosperity for some investors and sites. Yet other individuals and communities were harmed, displaced, bypassed, ignored, and forgotten by
those efforts.

At this moment in our history, we can co-create data infrastructure to promote racial equity and the public good, or we can invest in data infrastructure that disregards the historical, social, and political context—reinforcing racial inequity that continues to harm communities. Building data infrastructure without a racial equity lens and understanding of historical context will exacerbate existing inequalities along the lines of race, gender, class, and ability. Instead, we commit to contextualize our work in the historical and structural oppression that shapes it, and organize stakeholders across geography, sector, and experience to center racial equity throughout data integration….(More)”.

How Crowdsourcing Aided a Push to Preserve the Histories of Nazi Victims


Andrew Curry at the New York Times: “With people around the globe sheltering at home amid the pandemic, an archive of records documenting Nazi atrocities asked for help indexing them. Thousands joined the effort….

As the virus prompted lockdowns across Europe, the director of the Arolsen Archives — the world’s largest devoted to the victims of Nazi persecution — joined millions of others working remotely from home and spending lots more time in front of her computer.

“We thought, ‘Here’s an opportunity,’” said the director, Floriane Azoulay.

Two months later, the archive’s “Every Name Counts” project has attracted thousands of online volunteers to work as amateur archivists, indexing names from the archive’s enormous collection of papers. To date, they have added over 120,000 names, birth dates and prisoner numbers in the database.

“There’s been much more interest than we expected,” Ms. Azoulay said. “The fact that people were locked at home and so many cultural offerings have moved online has played a big role.”

It’s a big job: The Arolsen Archives are the largest collection of their kind in the world, with more than 30 million original documents. They contain information on the wartime experiences of as many as 40 million people, including Jews executed in extermination camps and forced laborers conscripted from across Nazi-occupied Europe.

The documents, which take up 16 miles of shelving, include things like train manifests, delousing records, work detail assignments and execution records…(More)”.

Digital contact tracing and surveillance during COVID-19


Report on General and Child-specific Ethical Issues by Gabrielle Berman, Karen Carter, Manuel García-Herranz and Vedran Sekara: “The last few years have seen a proliferation of means and approaches being used to collect sensitive or identifiable data on children. Technologies such as facial recognition and other biometrics, increased processing capacity for ‘big data’ analysis and data linkage, and the roll-out of mobile and internet services and access have substantially changed the nature of data collection, analysis, and use.

Real-time data are essential to support decision-makers in government, development and humanitarian agencies such as UNICEF to better understand the issues facing children, plan appropriate action, monitor progress and ensure that no one is left behind. But the collation and use of personally identifiable data may also pose significant risks to children’s rights.

UNICEF has undertaken substantial work to provide a foundation to understand and balance the potential benefits and risks to children of data collection. This work includes the Industry Toolkit on Children’s Online Privacy and Freedom of Expression and a partnership with GovLab on Responsible Data for Children (RD4C) – which promotes good practice principles and has developed practical tools to assist field offices, partners and governments to make responsible data management decisions.

Balancing the need to collect data to support good decision-making versus the need to protect children from harm created through the collection of the data has never been more challenging than in the context of the global COVID-19 pandemic. The response to the pandemic has seen an unprecedented rapid scaling up of technologies to support digital contact tracing and surveillance. The initial approach has included:

  • tracking using mobile phones and other digital devices (tablet computers, the Internet of Things, etc.)
  • surveillance to support movement restrictions, including through the use of location monitoring and facial recognition
  • a shift from in-person service provision and routine data collection to the use of remote or online platforms (including new processes for identity verification)
  • an increased focus on big data analysis and predictive modelling to fill data gaps…(More)”.