Averting Catastrophe

Book by Cass Sunstein on “Decision Theory for COVID-19, Climate Change, and Potential Disasters of All Kinds…The world is increasingly confronted with new challenges related to climate change, globalization, disease, and technology. Governments are faced with having to decide how much risk is worth taking, how much destruction and death can be tolerated, and how much money should be invested in the hopes of avoiding catastrophe. Lacking full information, should decision-makers focus on avoiding the most catastrophic outcomes? When should extreme measures be taken to prevent as much destruction as possible?

Averting Catastrophe explores how governments ought to make decisions in times of imminent disaster. Cass R. Sunstein argues that using the “maximin rule,” which calls for choosing the approach that eliminates the worst of the worst-case scenarios, may be necessary when public officials lack important information, and when the worst-case scenario is too disastrous to contemplate. He underscores this argument by emphasizing the reality of “Knightian uncertainty,” found in circumstances in which it is not possible to assign probabilities to various outcomes. Sunstein brings foundational issues in decision theory in close contact with real problems in regulation, law, and daily life, and considers other potential future risks. At once an approachable introduction to decision-theory and a provocative argument for how governments ought to handle risk, Averting Catastrophe offers a definitive path forward in a world rife with uncertainty….(More)”.

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)”.

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)”.

Future of Vulnerability: Humanity in the Digital Age

Report by the Australian Red Cross: “We find ourselves at the crossroads of humanity and technology. It is time to put people and society at the centre of our technological choices. To ensure that benefits are widely shared. To end the cycle of vulnerable groups benefiting least and being harmed most by new technologies.

There is an agenda for change across research, policy and practice towards responsible, inclusive and ethical uses of data and technology.
People and civil society must be at the centre of this work, involved in generating insights and developing prototypes, in evidence-based decision-making about impacts, and as part of new ‘business as usual’.

The Future of Vulnerability report invites a conversation around the complex questions that all of us collectively need to ask about the vulnerabilities frontier technologies can introduce or heighten. It also highlights opportunities for collaborative exploration to develop and promote ‘humanity first’ approaches to data and technology….(More)”.

Data Responsibility in Humanitarian Action

InterAgency Standing Committee: “Data responsibility in humanitarian action is the safe, ethical and effective management of personal and non-personal data for operational response. It is a critical issue for the humanitarian system to address and the stakes are high. Ensuring we ‘do no harm’ while maximizing the benefits of data requires collective action that extends across all levels of the humanitarian system. Humanitarians must be careful when handling data to avoid placing already vulnerable individuals and communities at further risk. This is especially important in contexts where the urgency of humanitarian needs drives pressure for fast, sometimes untested, data solutions, and the politicization of data can have more extreme consequences for people. 

The implementation of data responsibility in practice is often inconsistent within and across humanitarian response contexts. This is true despite established principles, norms and professional standards regarding respect for the rights of affected populations; the range of resources on data responsibility available in the wider international data community; as well as significant efforts by many humanitarian organizations to develop and update their policies and guidance in this area. However, given that the humanitarian data ecosystem is inherently interconnected, no individual organization can tackle all these challenges alone. 

This system-wide Operational Guidance, which is a first, will ensure concrete steps for data responsibility in all phases of humanitarian action. It is the result of an inclusive and consultative process, involving more than 250 stakeholders from the humanitarian sector. Partners across the system will implement these guidelines in accordance with their respective mandates and the decisions of their governing bodies….(More)”

Facebook Data for Good

Foreword by Sheryl Sandberg: “When Facebook launched the Data for Good program in 2017, we never imagined it would play a role so soon in response to a truly global emergency. The COVID-19 pandemic is not just a public health crisis, but also a social and economic one. It has caused hardship in every part of the world, but its impact hasn’t been felt equally. It has hit women and the most disadvantaged communities the hardest – something this work has helped shine a light on.

In response to the pandemic, Facebook has been part of an unprecedented collaboration between technology companies, the public sector, universities, nonprofits and others. Our partners operate in some of the most challenging environments in the world, where lengthy analysis and debate is often a luxury they don’t have. The policies that govern delivery of vaccines, masks, and financial support can mean the difference between life and death. By sharing tools that provide real-time insights, Facebook can make decision-making on the ground just a little bit easier and more effective.

This report highlights some of the ways Facebook data – shared in a way that protects the privacy of individuals – assisted the response efforts to the pandemic and other major crises in 2020. I hope the examples included help illustrate what successful data sharing projects can look like, and how future projects can be improved. Above all, I hope we can continue to work together in 2021 and beyond to save lives and mitigate the damage caused by the pandemic and any crises that may follow….(More)”.

Data Readiness: Lessons from an Emergency

The DELVE Initiative:  “Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic has required rapid decision-making in changing circumstances. Those decisions and their effects on the health and wealth of the nation can be better informed with data. Today, technologies that can acquire data are pervasive. Data is continually produced by devices like mobile phones, payment points and road traffic sensors. This creates opportunities for nowcasting of important metrics such as GDP, population movements and disease prevalence, which can be used to design policy interventions that are targeted to the needs of specific sectors or localities. The data collected as a by-product of daily activities is different to epidemiological or other population research data that might be used to drive the decisions of state. These new forms of data are happenstance, in that they are not originally collected with a particular research or policy question in mind but are created through the normal course of events in our digital lives, and our interactions with digital systems and services.

This happenstance data pertains to individual citizens and their daily activities. To be useful it needs to be anonymized, aggregated and statistically calibrated to provide meaningful metrics for robust decision making while managing concerns about individual privacy or business value. This process necessitates particular technical and domain expertise that is often found in academia, but it must be conducted in partnership with the industries, and public sector organisations, that collect or generate the data and government authorities that take action based on those insights. Such collaborations require governance mechanisms that can respond rapidly to emerging areas of need, a common language between partners about how data is used and how it is being protected, and careful stewardship to ensure appropriate balancing of data subjects’ rights and the benefit of using this data. This is the landscape of data readiness; the availability and quality of the UK nation’s data dictates our ability to respond in an agile manner to evolving events….(More)”.

Tackling Societal Challenges with Open Innovation

Introduction to Special Issue of California Management Review by Anita M. McGahan, Marcel L. A. M. Bogers, Henry Chesbrough, and Marcus Holgersson: “Open innovation includes external knowledge sources and paths to market as complements to internal innovation processes. Open innovation has to date been driven largely by business objectives, but the imperative of social challenges has turned attention to the broader set of goals to which open innovation is relevant. This introduction discusses how open innovation can be deployed to address societal challenges—as well as the trade-offs and tensions that arise as a result. Against this background we introduce the articles published in this Special Section, which were originally presented at the sixth Annual World Open Innovation Conference….(More)”.

The Next Generation Humanitarian Distributed Platform

Report by Mercy Corps, the Danish Red Cross and hiveonline: “… call for the development of a shared, sector-wide “blockchain for good” to allow the aid sector to better automate and track processes in real-time, and maintain secure records. This would help modernize and coordinate the sector to reach more people as increasing threats such as pandemics, climate change and natural disasters require aid to be disbursed faster, more widely and efficiently.

A cross-sector blockchain platform – a digital database that can be simultaneously used and shared within a large decentralized, publicly accessible network – could support applications ranging from cash and voucher distribution to identity services, natural capital and carbon tracking, and donor engagement.

The report authors call for the creation of a committee to develop cross-sector governance and coordinate the implementation of a shared “Humanitarian Distributed Platform.” The authors believe the technology can help organizations fulfill commitments made to transparency, collaboration and efficiency under the Humanitarian Grand Bargain.

The report is compiled from responses of 35 survey participants, representing stakeholders in the humanitarian sector, including NGO project implementers, consultants, blockchain developers, academics, and founders. A further 39 direct interviews took place over the course of the research between July and September 2020….(More)”.

Tackling misinformation during crisis

Paper by Elizabether Seger and Mark Briers: “The current COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying ‘infodemic’ clearly illustrate that access to reliable information is crucial to coordinating a timely crisis response in democratic societies. Inaccurate information and the muzzling of important information sources have degraded trust in health authorities and slowed public response to the crisis. Misinformation about ineffective cures, the origins and malicious spread of COVID-19, unverified treatment discoveries, and the efficacy of face coverings have increased the difficulty of coordinating a unified public response during the crisis. 

In a recent report, researchers at the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) in collaboration with The Alan Turing Institute and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) workshopped an array of hypothetical crisis scenarios to investigate social and technological factors that interfere with well-informed decision-making and timely collective action in democratic societies.

Crisis scenarios

Crisis scenarios are useful tools for appraising threats and vulnerabilities to systems of information production, dissemination, and evaluation. Factors influencing how robust a society is to such threats and vulnerabilities are not always obvious when life is relatively tranquil but are often highlighted under the stress of a crisis. 

CSER and Dstl workshop organisers, together with workshop participants (a diverse group of professionals interested in topics related to [mis/dis]information, information technology, and crisis response), co-developed and explored six hypothetical crisis scenarios and complex challenges:

  • Global health crisis
  • Character assassination
  • State fake news campaign
  • Economic collapse
  • Xenophobic ethnic cleansing
  • Epistemic babble, where the ability for the general population to tell the difference between truth and fiction (presented as truth) is lost

We analysed each scenario to identify various interest groups and actors, to pinpoint vulnerabilities in systems of information production and exchange, and to visualise how the system might be interfered with. We also considered interventions that could help bolster the society against threats to informed decision-making.

The systems map below is an example from workshop scenario 1: Global health crisis. The map shows how adversarial actors (red) and groups working to mitigate the crisis (blue) interact, impact each other’s actions, and influence the general public and other interest groups (green) such as those affected by the health crisis. 

Systems maps help visualise vulnerabilities in both red and blue actor systems, which, in turn, helps identify areas where intervention (yellow) is possible to help mitigate the crisis….(More)