Making Public Transit Fairer to Women Demands Way More Data


Flavie Halais at Wired: “Public transportation is sexist. This may be unintentional or implicit, but it’s also easy to see. Women around the world do more care and domestic work than men, and their resulting mobility habits are hobbled by most transport systems. The demands of running errands and caring for children and other family members mean repeatedly getting on and off the bus, meaning paying more fares. Strollers and shopping bags make travel cumbersome. A 2018 study of New Yorkers found women were harassed on the subway far more frequently than men were, and as a result paid more money to avoid transit in favor of taxis and ride-hail….

What is not measured is not known, and the world of transit data is still largely blind to women and other vulnerable populations. Getting that data, though, isn’t easy. Traditional sources like national censuses and user surveys provide reliable information that serve as the basis for policies and decisionmaking. But surveys are costly to run, and it can take years for a government to go through the process of adding a question to its national census.

Before pouring resources into costly data collection to find answers about women’s transport needs, cities could first turn to the trove of unconventional gender-disaggregated data that’s already produced. They include data exhaust, or the trail of data we leave behind as a result of our interactions with digital products and services like mobile phones, credit cards, and social media. Last year, researchers in Santiago, Chile, released a report based on their parsing of anonymized call detail records of female mobile phone users, to extract location information and analyze their mobility patterns. They found that women tended to travel to fewer locations than men, and within smaller geographical areas. When researchers cross-referenced location information with census data, they found a higher gender gap among lower-income residents, as poorer women made even shorter trips. And when using data from the local transit agency, they saw that living close to a public transit stop increased mobility for both men and women, but didn’t close the gender gap for poorer residents.

To encourage private companies to share such info, Stefaan Verhulst advocates for data collaboratives, flexible partnerships between data providers and researchers. Verhulst is the head of research and development at GovLab, a research center at New York University that contributed to the research in Santiago. And that’s how GovLab and its local research partner, Universidad del Desarollo, got access to the phone records owned by the Chilean phone company, Telefónica. Data collaboratives can enhance access to private data without exposing companies to competition or privacy concerns. “We need to find ways to access data according to different shades of openness,” Verhulst says….(More)”.

UK citizens' climate assembly to meet for first time


Sandra Laville in The Guardian: “Ordinary people from across the UK – potentially including climate deniers – will take part in the first ever citizens’ climate assembly this weekend.

Mirroring the model adopted in France by Emmanuel Macron, 110 people from all walks of life will begin deliberations on Saturday to come up with a plan to tackle global heating and meet the government’s target of net-zero emissions by 2050.

The assembly was selected to be a representative sample of the population after a mailout to 30,000 people chosen at random. About 2,000 people responded saying they wanted to be considered for the assembly, and the 110 members were picked by computer.

They come from all age brackets and their selection reflects a 2019 Ipsos Mori poll of how concerned the general population is by climate change, where responses ranged from not at all to very concerned. Of the assembly members, three people are not at all concerned, 16 not very concerned, 36 fairly concerned, 54 very concerned, and one did not know, organisers said.

The selection process meant those chosen could include climate deniers or sceptics, according to Sarah Allan, the head of engagement at Involve, which is running the assembly along with the Sortition Foundation and the e-democracy project mySociety.

“It is really important that it is representative of the UK population,” said Allen. “Those people, just because they’re sceptical of climate change, they’re going to be affected by the steps the government takes to get to net zero by 2050 too and they shouldn’t have their voice denied in that.”

The UK climate assembly differs from the French model in that it was commissioned by six select committees, rather than by the prime minister. Their views, which will be produced in a report in the spring, will be considered by the select committees but there is no guarantee any of the proposals will be taken up by government.

Allen said it was rare for members of a citizens’ assembly to get locked into dissent. She pointed to the success of the Irish citizens’ assembly in 2016, which helped break the deadlock in the abortion debate. “This climate assembly is going to come up with recommendations that are going to be really invaluable in highlighting public preferences,” she said….(More)”.

How Aid Groups Map Refugee Camps That Officially Don't Exist


Abby Sewell at Wired: “On the outskirts of Zahle, a town in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, a pair of aid workers carrying clipboards and cell phones walk through a small refugee camp, home to 11 makeshift shelters built from wood and tarps.

A camp resident leading them through the settlement—one of many in the Beqaa, a wide agricultural plain between Beirut and Damascus with scattered villages of cinderblock houses—points out a tent being renovated for the winter. He leads them into the kitchen of another tent, highlighting cracking wood supports and leaks in the ceiling. The aid workers record the number of residents in each tent, as well as the number of latrines and kitchens in the settlement.

The visit is part of an initiative by the Switzerland-based NGO Medair to map the locations of the thousands of informal refugee settlements in Lebanon, a country where even many city buildings have no street addresses, much less tents on a dusty country road.

“I always say that this project is giving an address to people that lost their home, which is giving back part of their dignity in a way,” says Reine Hanna, Medair’s information management project manager, who helped develop the mapping project.

The initiative relies on GIS technology, though the raw data is collected the old-school way, without high tech mapping aids like drones. Mapping teams criss-cross the country year round, stopping at each camp to speak to residents and conduct a survey. They enter the coordinates of new camps or changes in the population or facilities of old ones into a database that’s shared with UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, and other NGOs working in the camps. The maps can be accessed via a mobile app by workers heading to the field to distribute aid or respond to emergencies.

Lebanon, a small country with an estimated native population of about 4 million, hosts more than 900,000 registered Syrian refugees and potentially hundreds of thousands more unregistered, making it the country with the highest population of refugees per capita in the world.

But there are no official refugee camps run by the government or the UN refugee agency in Lebanon, where refugees are a sensitive subject. The country is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and government officials refer to the Syrians as “displaced,” not “refugees.”

Lebanese officials have been wary of the Syrians settling permanently, as Palestinian refugees did beginning in 1948. Today, more than 70 years later, there are some 470,000 Palestinian refugees registered in Lebanon, though the number living in the country is believed to be much lower….(More)”.

Four maps showing the growth of informal Syrian refugee settlements in the Zahle district of the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon
Maps compiled by UNHCR showing the growth in the number of informal refugee camps in one area of Lebanon over the past six years.COURTESY OF UNHCR

Hospitals Give Tech Giants Access to Detailed Medical Records


Melanie Evans at the Wall Street Journal: “Hospitals have granted Microsoft Corp., International Business Machines and Amazon.com Inc. the ability to access identifiable patient information under deals to crunch millions of health records, the latest examples of hospitals’ growing influence in the data economy.

The breadth of access wasn’t always spelled out by hospitals and tech giants when the deals were struck.

The scope of data sharing in these and other recently reported agreements reveals a powerful new role that hospitals play—as brokers to technology companies racing into the $3 trillion health-care sector. Rapid digitization of health records and privacy laws enabling companies to swap patient data have positioned hospitals as a primary arbiter of how such sensitive data is shared. 

“Hospitals are massive containers of patient data,” said Lisa Bari, a consultant and former lead for health information technology for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Innovation Center. 

Hospitals can share patient data as long as they follow federal privacy laws, which contain limited consumer protections, she said. “The data belongs to whoever has it.”…

Digitizing patients’ medical histories, laboratory results and diagnoses has created a booming market in which tech giants are looking to store and crunch data, with potential for groundbreaking discoveries and lucrative products.

There is no indication of wrongdoing in the deals. Officials at the companies and hospitals say they have safeguards to protect patients. Hospitals control data, with privacy training and close tracking of tech employees with access, they said. Health data can’t be combined independently with other data by tech companies….(More)”.

Belgium’s experiment in permanent forms of deliberative democracy


Article by Min Reuchamps: In December 2019, the parliament of the Region of Brussels in Belgium amended its internal regulations to allow the formation of ‘deliberative committees’ composed of a mixture of members of the Regional Parliament and randomly selected citizens. This initiative follows innovative experiences in the German-speaking Community of Belgium, known as Ostbelgien, and the city of Madrid in establishing permanent forums of deliberative democracy earlier in 2019. Ostbelgien is now experiencing its first cycle of deliberations, whereas the Madrid forum has been short-lived after having been cancelled, after two meetings, by the new governing coalition of the city.

The experimentation in establishing permanent forums for direct citizen involvement constitutes an advance from hitherto deliberative processes which were one-off experiments, i.e. non-permanent procedures. The relatively large size of the Brussels Region, with over 1 200 000 inhabitants, means that the lessons will be key in understanding the opportunities and risks of ‘deliberative committees’ and their potential scalability….

Under the new rules, the Regional Parliament can setup a parliamentary committee composed of 15 (12 in the Cocof) parliamentarians and 45 (36 in the Cocof) citizens to draft recommendations on a given issue. Any inhabitant in Brussels who has attained 16 years of age has the chance to have a direct say in matters falling under the jurisdiction of the Brussels Regional Parliament and the Cocof. The citizen representatives will be drawn by lot in two steps:

  • A first draw among the whole population, so that every inhabitant has the same chance to be invited via a formal invitation letter from the Parliament;
  • A second draw among all the persons who have responded positively to the invitation by means of a sampling method following criteria to ensure a diverse and representative selection, at least in terms of gender, age, official languages of the Brussels-Capital Region, geographical distribution and level of education.

The participating parliamentarians will be the members of the standing parliamentary committee that covers the topic under deliberation. In the regional parliament, each standing committee is made up of 15 members (including both Dutch- and French-speakers), and in the Cocof Parliament, each standing committee is made of 12 members (only French-speakers)….(More)”.

Social media firms 'should hand over data amid suicide risk'


Denis Campbell at the Guardian: “Social media firms such as Facebook and Instagram should be forced to hand over data about who their users are and why they use the sites to reduce suicide among children and young people, psychiatrists have said.

The call from the Royal College of Psychiatrists comes as ministers finalise plans to crack down on issues caused by people viewing unsavoury material and messages online.

The college, which represents the UK’s 18,000 psychiatrists, wants the government to make social media platforms hand over the data to academics so that they can study what sort of content users are viewing.

“We will never understand the risks and benefits of social media use unless the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram share their data with researchers,” said Dr Bernadka Dubicka, chair of the college’s child and adolescent mental health faculty. “Their research will help shine a light on how young people are interacting with social media, not just how much time they spend online.”

Data passed to academics would show the type of material viewed and how long users were spending on such platforms but would be anonymous, the college said.

The government plans to set up a new online safety regulator and the college says it should be given the power to compel firms to hand over data. It is also calling for the forthcoming 2% “turnover tax” on social media companies’ income to be extended so that it includes their turnover internationally, not from just the UK.

“Self-regulation is not working. It is time for government to step up and take decisive action to hold social media companies to account for escalating harmful content to vulnerable children and young people,” said Dubicka.

The college’s demands come amid growing concern that young people are being harmed by material that, for example, encourages self-harm, suicide and eating disorders. They are included in a new position statement on technology use and the mental health of children and young people.

NHS England challenged firms to hand over the sort of information that the college is suggesting. Claire Murdoch, its national director for mental health, said that action was needed “to rein in potentially misleading or harmful online content and behaviours”.

She said: “If these tech giants really want to be a force for good, put a premium on users’ wellbeing and take their responsibilities seriously, then they should do all they can to help researchers better understand how they operate and the risks posed. Until then, they cannot confidently say whether the good outweighs the bad.”

The demands have also been backed by Ian Russell, who has become a campaigner against social media harm since his 14-year-old daughter Molly killed herself in November 2017….(More)”.

Global problems need social science


Hetan Shah at Nature: “Without human insights, data and the hard sciences will not meet the challenges of the next decade…

I worry about the fact that the call prioritized science and technology over the humanities and social sciences. Governments must make sure they also tap into that expertise, or they will fail to tackle the challenges of this decade.

For example, we cannot improve global health if we take only a narrow medical view. Epidemics are social as well as biological phenomena. Anthropologists such as Melissa Leach at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK, played an important part in curbing the West African Ebola epidemic with proposals to substitute risky burial rituals with safer ones, rather than trying to eliminate such rituals altogether.

Treatments for mental health have made insufficient progress. Advances will depend, in part, on a better understanding of how social context influences whether treatment succeeds. Similar arguments apply to the problem of antimicrobial resistance and antibiotic overuse.

Environmental issues are not just technical challenges that can be solved with a new invention. To tackle climate change we will need insight from psychology and sociology. Scientific and technological innovations are necessary, but enabling them to make an impact requires an understanding of how people adapt and change their behaviour. That will probably require new narratives — the purview of rhetoric, literature, philosophy and even theology.

Poverty and inequality call even more obviously for expertise beyond science and maths. The UK Economic and Social Research Council has recognized that poor productivity in the country is a big problem, and is investing up to £32.4 million (US$42 million) in a new Productivity Institute in an effort understand the causes and potential remedies.

Policy that touches on national and geographical identity also needs scholarly input. What is the rise of ‘Englishness’? How do we live together in a community of diverse races and religions? How is migration understood and experienced? These intangibles have real-world consequences, as demonstrated by the Brexit vote and ongoing discussions about whether the United Kingdom has a future as a united kingdom. It will take the work of historians, social psychologists and political scientists to help shed light on these questions. I could go on: fighting against misinformation; devising ethical frameworks for artificial intelligence. These are issues that cannot be tackled with better science alone….(More)”.

Tech groups cannot be allowed to hide from scrutiny


Marietje Schaake at the Financial Times: “Technology companies have governments over a barrel. Whether they are maximising traffic flow efficiency, matching pupils with their school preferences, trying to anticipate drought based on satellite and soil data, most governments heavily rely on critical infrastructure and artificial intelligence developed by the private sector. This growing dependence has profound implications for democracy.

An unprecedented information asymmetry is growing between companies and governments. We can see this in the long-running investigation into interference in the 2016 US presidential elections. Companies build voter registries, voting machines and tallying tools, while social media companies sell precisely targeted advertisements using information gleaned by linking data on friends, interests, location, shopping and search.

This has big privacy and competition implications, yet oversight is minimal. Governments, researchers and citizens risk being blindsided by the machine room that powers our lives and vital aspects of our democracies. Governments and companies have fundamentally different incentives on transparency and accountability.

While openness is the default and secrecy the exception for democratic governments, companies resist providing transparency about their algorithms and business models. Many of them actively prevent accountability, citing rules that protect trade secrets.

We must revisit these protections when they shield companies from oversight. There is a place for protecting proprietary information from commercial competitors, but the scope and context need to be clarified and balanced when they have an impact on democracy and the rule of law.

Regulators must act to ensure that those designing and running algorithmic processes do not abuse trade secret protections. Tech groups also use the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation to deny access to company information. Although the regulation was enacted to protect citizens against the mishandling of personal data, it is now being wielded cynically to deny scientists access to data sets for research. The European Data Protection Supervisor has intervened, but problems could recur. To mitigate concerns about the power of AI, provider companies routinely promise that the applications will be understandable, explainable, accountable, reliable, contestable, fair and — don’t forget — ethical.

Yet there is no way to test these subjective notions without access to the underlying data and information. Without clear benchmarks and information to match, proper scrutiny of the way vital data is processed and used will be impossible….(More)”.

How digital sleuths unravelled the mystery of Iran’s plane crash


Chris Stokel-Walker at Wired: “The video shows a faint glow in the distance, zig-zagging like a piece of paper caught in an underdraft, slowly meandering towards the horizon. Then there’s a bright flash and the trees in the foreground are thrown into shadow as Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 hits the ground early on the morning of January 8, killing all 176 people on board.

At first, it seemed like an accident – engine failure was fingered as the cause – until the first video showing the plane seemingly on fire as it weaved to the ground surfaced. United States officials started to investigate, and a more complicated picture emerged. It appeared that the plane had been hit by a missile, corroborated by a second video that appears to show the moment the missile ploughs into the Boeing 737-800. While military and intelligence officials at governments around the world were conducting their inquiries in secret, a team of investigators were using open-source intelligence (OSINT) techniques to piece together the puzzle of flight PS752.

It’s not unusual nowadays for OSINT to lead the way in decoding key news events. When Sergei Skripal was poisoned, Bellingcat, an open-source intelligence website, tracked and identified his killers as they traipsed across London and Salisbury. They delved into military records to blow the cover of agents sent to kill. And in the days after the Ukraine Airlines plane crashed into the ground outside Tehran, Bellingcat and The New York Times have blown a hole in the supposition that the downing of the aircraft was an engine failure. The pressure – and the weight of public evidence – compelled Iranian officials to admit overnight on January 10 that the country had shot down the plane “in error”.

So how do they do it? “You can think of OSINT as a puzzle. To get the complete picture, you need to find the missing pieces and put everything together,” says Loránd Bodó, an OSINT analyst at Tech versus Terrorism, a campaign group. The team at Bellingcat and other open-source investigators pore over publicly available material. Thanks to our propensity to reach for our cameraphones at the sight of any newsworthy incident, video and photos are often available, posted to social media in the immediate aftermath of events. (The person who shot and uploaded the second video in this incident, of the missile appearing to hit the Boeing plane was a perfect example: they grabbed their phone after they heard “some sort of shot fired”.) “Open source investigations essentially involve the collection, preservation, verification, and analysis of evidence that is available in the public domain to build a picture of what happened,” says Yvonne McDermott Rees, a lecturer at Swansea University….(More)”.

Technology Can't Fix Algorithmic Injustice


Annette Zimmerman, Elena Di Rosa and Hochan Kima at Boston Review: “A great deal of recent public debate about artificial intelligence has been driven by apocalyptic visions of the future. Humanity, we are told, is engaged in an existential struggle against its own creation. Such worries are fueled in large part by tech industry leaders and futurists, who anticipate systems so sophisticated that they can perform general tasks and operate autonomously, without human control. Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates have all publicly expressed their concerns about the advent of this kind of “strong” (or “general”) AI—and the associated existential risk that it may pose for humanity. In Hawking’s words, the development of strong AI “could spell the end of the human race.”

These are legitimate long-term worries. But they are not all we have to worry about, and placing them center stage distracts from ethical questions that AI is raising here and now. Some contend that strong AI may be only decades away, but this focus obscures the reality that “weak” (or “narrow”) AI is already reshaping existing social and political institutions. Algorithmic decision making and decision support systems are currently being deployed in many high-stakes domains, from criminal justice, law enforcement, and employment decisions to credit scoring, school assignment mechanisms, health care, and public benefits eligibility assessments. Never mind the far-off specter of doomsday; AI is already here, working behind the scenes of many of our social systems.

What responsibilities and obligations do we bear for AI’s social consequences in the present—not just in the distant future? To answer this question, we must resist the learned helplessness that has come to see AI development as inevitable. Instead, we should recognize that developing and deploying weak AI involves making consequential choices—choices that demand greater democratic oversight not just from AI developers and designers, but from all members of society….(More)”.