We Need a New Science of Progress

Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen in The Atlantic: “In 1861, the American scientist and educator William Barton Rogers published a manifesto calling for a new kind of research institution. Recognizing the “daily increasing proofs of the happy influence of scientific culture on the industry and the civilization of the nations,” and the growing importance of what he called “Industrial Arts,” he proposed a new organization dedicated to practical knowledge. He named it the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Rogers was one of a number of late-19th-century reformers who saw that the United States’ ability to generate progress could be substantially improved. These reformers looked to the successes of the German university models overseas and realized that a combination of focused professorial research and teaching could be a powerful engine for advance in research. Over the course of several decades, the group—Rogers, Charles Eliot, Henry Tappan, George Hale, John D. Rockefeller, and others—founded and restructured many of what are now America’s best universities, including Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Caltech, Johns Hopkins, the University of Chicago, and more. By acting on their understanding, they engaged in a kind of conscious “progress engineering.”

Progress itself is understudied. By “progress,” we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries. For a number of reasons, there is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up. We believe that it deserves a dedicated field of study. We suggest inaugurating the discipline of “Progress Studies.”…(More)”

The World Is Complex. Measuring Charity Has to Be Too

Joy Ito at Wired: “If you looked at how many people check books out of libraries these days, you would see failure. Circulation, an obvious measure of success for an institution established to lend books to people, is down. But if you only looked at that figure, you’d miss the fascinating transformation public libraries have undergone in recent years. They’ve taken advantage of grants to become makerspaces, classrooms, research labs for kids, and trusted public spaces in every way possible. Much of the successful funding encouraged creative librarians to experiment and scale when successful, iterating and sharing their learnings with others. If we had focused our funding to increase just the number of books people were borrowing, we would have missed the opportunity to fund and witness these positive changes.

I serve on the boards of the MacArthur Foundation and the Knight Foundation, which have made grants that helped transform our libraries. I’ve also worked over the years with dozens of philanthropists and investors—those who put money into ventures that promise environmental and public health benefits in addition to financial returns. All of us have struggled to measure the effectiveness of grants and investments that seek to benefit the community, the environment, and so forth. My own research interest in the practice of change has converged with the research of those who are trying to quantify this change, and so recently, my colleague Louis Kang and I have begun to analyse the ways in which people are currently measuring impact and perhaps find methods to better measure the impact of these investments….(More)”.

How Can We Use Administrative Data to Prevent Homelessness among Youth Leaving Care?

Article by Naomi Nichols: “In 2017, I was part of a team of people at the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and A Way Home Canada who wrote a policy brief titled, Child Welfare and Youth Homelessness in Canada: A proposal for action. Drawing on the results of the first pan-Canadian survey on youth homelessness, Without a Home: The National Youth Homelessness Surveythe brief focused on the disproportionate number of young people who had been involved with child protection services and then later became homeless. Indeed, 57.8% of homeless youth surveyed reported some type of involvement with child protection services over their lifetime. By comparison, in the general population, only 0.3% of young people receive child welfare service. This means, youth experiencing homelessness are far more likely to report interactions with the child welfare system than young people in the general population. 

Where research reveals systematic patterns of exclusion and neglect – that is, where findings reveal that one group is experiencing disproportionately negative outcomes (relative to the general population) in a particular public sector context – this suggests the need for changes in public policy, programming and practice. Since producing this brief, I have been working with an incredibly talented and passionate McGill undergraduate student (who also happens to be the Vice President of Youth in Care Canada), Arisha Khan. Together, we have been exploring just uses of data to better serve the interests of those young people who depend on the state for their access to basic services (e.g., housing, healthcare and food) as well as their self-efficacy and status as citizens. 

One component of this work revolved around a grant application that has just been funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (Data Justice: Fostering equitable data-led strategies to prevent, reduce and end youth homelessness). Another aspect of our work revolved around a policy brief, which we co-wrote and published with the Montreal data-for-good organization, Powered by Data. The brief outlines how a rights-based and custodial approach to administrative data could a) effectively support young people in and leaving care to participate more actively in their transition planning and engage in institutional self-advocacy; and b) enable systemic oversight of intervention implementation and outcomes for young people in and leaving the provincial care system. We produced this brief with the hope that it would be useful to government decision-makers, service providers, researchers, and advocates interested in understanding how institutional data could be used to improve outcomes for youth in and leaving care. In particular, we wanted to explore whether a different orientation to data collection and use in child protection systems could prevent young people from graduating from provincial child welfare systems into homelessness. In addition to this practical concern, we also undertook to think through the ethical and human rights implications of more recent moves towards data-driven service delivery in Canada, focusing on how we might make this move with the best interests of young people in mind. 

As data collection, management and use practices have become more popularresearch is beginning to illuminate how these new monitoring, evaluative and predictive technologies are changing governance processes within and across the public sector, as well as in civil society. ….(More)”.

The New York Times thinks a blockchain could help stamp out fake news

MIT Technology Review: “Blockchain technology is at the core of a new research project the New York Times has launched, aimed at making “the origins of journalistic content clearer to [its] audience.”

The news: The Times has launched what it calls The News Provenance Project, which will experiment with ways to combat misinformation in the news media. The first project will focus on using a blockchain—specifically a platform designed by IBM—to prove that photos are authentic.

Blockchain? Really? Rumors and speculation swirled in March, after CoinDesk reported that the New York Times was looking for someone to help it develop a “blockchain-based proof-of-concept for news publishers.” Though the newspaper removed the job posting after the article came out, apparently it was serious. In a new blog post, project lead Sasha Koren explains that by using a blockchain, “we might in theory provide audiences with a way to determine the source of a photo, or whether it had been edited after it was published.”

Unfulfilled promise: Using a blockchain to prove the authenticity of journalistic content has long been considered a potential application of the technology, but attempts to do it so far haven’t gotten much traction. If the New York Times can develop a compelling application, it has enough influence to change that….(More)”.

“Anonymous” Data Won’t Protect Your Identity

Sophie Bushwick at Scientific American: “The world produces roughly 2.5 quintillion bytes of digital data per day, adding to a sea of information that includes intimate details about many individuals’ health and habits. To protect privacy, data brokers must anonymize such records before sharing them with researchers and marketers. But a new study finds it is relatively easy to reidentify a person from a supposedly anonymized data set—even when that set is incomplete.

Massive data repositories can reveal trends that teach medical researchers about disease, demonstrate issues such as the effects of income inequality, coach artificial intelligence into humanlike behavior and, of course, aim advertising more efficiently. To shield people who—wittingly or not—contribute personal information to these digital storehouses, most brokers send their data through a process of deidentification. This procedure involves removing obvious markers, including names and social security numbers, and sometimes taking other precautions, such as introducing random “noise” data to the collection or replacing specific details with general ones (for example, swapping a birth date of “March 7, 1990” for “January–April 1990”). The brokers then release or sell a portion of this information.

“Data anonymization is basically how, for the past 25 years, we’ve been using data for statistical purposes and research while preserving people’s privacy,” says Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, an assistant professor of computational privacy at Imperial College London and co-author of the new study, published this week in Nature Communications.  Many commonly used anonymization techniques, however, originated in the 1990s, before the Internet’s rapid development made it possible to collect such an enormous amount of detail about things such as an individual’s health, finances, and shopping and browsing habits. This discrepancy has made it relatively easy to connect an anonymous line of data to a specific person: if a private detective is searching for someone in New York City and knows the subject is male, is 30 to 35 years old and has diabetes, the sleuth would not be able to deduce the man’s name—but could likely do so quite easily if he or she also knows the target’s birthday, number of children, zip code, employer and car model….(More)”

Battling Information Illiteracy

Article by Paul T. Jaeger and Natalie Greene Taylor on “How misinformation affects the future of policy…“California wildfires are being magnified and made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amounts of readily available water to be properly utilized. It is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Must also tree clear to stop fire from spreading!”

This tweet was a statement by a US president about a major event, suggesting changes to existing policies. It is also not true. Every element of the tweet—other than the existence of California, the Pacific Ocean, and wildfires—is false. And it was not a simple misunderstanding, because a tweet from Trump the next day reiterated these themes and blamed the state’s governor personally for holding back water to fight the fires.

So how does this pertain to information policy, since the tweet is about environmental policy issues? The answer is in the information. The use and misuse of information in governance and policymaking may be turning into the biggest information policy issue of all. And as technologies and methods of communication evolve, a large part of engaging with and advocating for information policy will consist of addressing the new challenges of teaching information literacy and behavior.

Misinformation literacy

The internet has made it easy for people to be information illiterate in new ways. Anyone can create information now—regardless of quality—and get it in front of a large number of people. The ability of social media to spread information as fast as possible, and to as many people as possible, challenges literacy, as does the ability to manipulate images, sounds, and video with ease….(More)”

The internet is rotting – let’s embrace it

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger in The Conversation: “Every year, some thousands of sites – including ones with unique information – go offline. Countless further webpages become inaccessible; instead of information, users encounter error messages.

Where some commentators may lament yet another black hole in the slowly rotting Internet, I actually feel okay. Of course, I, too, dread broken links and dead servers. But I also know: Forgetting is important.

In fact, as I argued in my book, “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age,” all through human history, humans reserved remembering for the things that really mattered to them and forgot the rest. Now the internet is making forgetting a lot harder.

Built to forget

Humans are accustomed to a world in which forgetting is the norm, and remembering is the exception.

This isn’t necessarily a bug in human evolution. The mind forgets what is no longer relevant to our present. Human memory is constantly reconstructed – it isn’t preserved in pristine condition, but becomes altered over time, helping people overcome cognitive dissonances. For example, people may see an awful past as rosier than it was, or devalue memories of past conflict with a person with whom they are close in the present.

Forgetting also helps humans to focus on current issues and to plan for the future. Research shows that those who are too tethered to their past find it difficult to live and act in the present. Forgetting creates space for something new, enabling people to go beyond what they already know.

Organizations that remember too much ossify in their processes and behavior. Learning something new requires forgetting something old – and that is hard for organizations that remember too much. There’s a growing literature on the importance of “unlearning,” or deliberately purging deeply rooted processes or practices from an organization – a fancy way to say that forgetting fulfills a valuable purpose….(More)”.

The Hidden Costs of Automated Thinking

Jonathan Zittrain in The New Yorker: “Like many medications, the wakefulness drug modafinil, which is marketed under the trade name Provigil, comes with a small, tightly folded paper pamphlet. For the most part, its contents—lists of instructions and precautions, a diagram of the drug’s molecular structure—make for anodyne reading. The subsection called “Mechanism of Action,” however, contains a sentence that might induce sleeplessness by itself: “The mechanism(s) through which modafinil promotes wakefulness is unknown.”

Provigil isn’t uniquely mysterious. Many drugs receive regulatory approval, and are widely prescribed, even though no one knows exactly how they work. This mystery is built into the process of drug discovery, which often proceeds by trial and error. Each year, any number of new substances are tested in cultured cells or animals; the best and safest of those are tried out in people. In some cases, the success of a drug promptly inspires new research that ends up explaining how it works—but not always. Aspirin was discovered in 1897, and yet no one convincingly explained how it worked until 1995. The same phenomenon exists elsewhere in medicine. Deep-brain stimulation involves the implantation of electrodes in the brains of people who suffer from specific movement disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease; it’s been in widespread use for more than twenty years, and some think it should be employed for other purposes, including general cognitive enhancement. No one can say how it works.

This approach to discovery—answers first, explanations later—accrues what I call intellectual debt. It’s possible to discover what works without knowing why it works, and then to put that insight to use immediately, assuming that the underlying mechanism will be figured out later. In some cases, we pay off this intellectual debt quickly. But, in others, we let it compound, relying, for decades, on knowledge that’s not fully known.

In the past, intellectual debt has been confined to a few areas amenable to trial-and-error discovery, such as medicine. But that may be changing, as new techniques in artificial intelligence—specifically, machine learning—increase our collective intellectual credit line. Machine-learning systems work by identifying patterns in oceans of data. Using those patterns, they hazard answers to fuzzy, open-ended questions. Provide a neural network with labelled pictures of cats and other, non-feline objects, and it will learn to distinguish cats from everything else; give it access to medical records, and it can attempt to predict a new hospital patient’s likelihood of dying. And yet, most machine-learning systems don’t uncover causal mechanisms. They are statistical-correlation engines. They can’t explain why they think some patients are more likely to die, because they don’t “think” in any colloquial sense of the word—they only answer. As we begin to integrate their insights into our lives, we will, collectively, begin to rack up more and more intellectual debt….(More)”.

The plan to mine the world’s research papers

Priyanka Pulla in Nature: “Carl Malamud is on a crusade to liberate information locked up behind paywalls — and his campaigns have scored many victories. He has spent decades publishing copyrighted legal documents, from building codes to court records, and then arguing that such texts represent public-domain law that ought to be available to any citizen online. Sometimes, he has won those arguments in court. Now, the 60-year-old American technologist is turning his sights on a new objective: freeing paywalled scientific literature. And he thinks he has a legal way to do it.

Over the past year, Malamud has — without asking publishers — teamed up with Indian researchers to build a gigantic store of text and images extracted from 73 million journal articles dating from 1847 up to the present day. The cache, which is still being created, will be kept on a 576-terabyte storage facility at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi. “This is not every journal article ever written, but it’s a lot,” Malamud says. It’s comparable to the size of the core collection in the Web of Science database, for instance. Malamud and his JNU collaborator, bioinformatician Andrew Lynn, call their facility the JNU data depot.

No one will be allowed to read or download work from the repository, because that would breach publishers’ copyright. Instead, Malamud envisages, researchers could crawl over its text and data with computer software, scanning through the world’s scientific literature to pull out insights without actually reading the text.

The unprecedented project is generating much excitement because it could, for the first time, open up vast swathes of the paywalled literature for easy computerized analysis. Dozens of research groups already mine papers to build databases of genes and chemicals, map associations between proteins and diseases, and generate useful scientific hypotheses. But publishers control — and often limit — the speed and scope of such projects, which typically confine themselves to abstracts, not full text. Researchers in India, the United States and the United Kingdom are already making plans to use the JNU store instead. Malamud and Lynn have held workshops at Indian government laboratories and universities to explain the idea. “We bring in professors and explain what we are doing. They get all excited and they say, ‘Oh gosh, this is wonderful’,” says Malamud.

But the depot’s legal status isn’t yet clear. Malamud, who contacted several intellectual-property (IP) lawyers before starting work on the depot, hopes to avoid a lawsuit. “Our position is that what we are doing is perfectly legal,” he says. For the moment, he is proceeding with caution: the JNU data depot is air-gapped, meaning that no one can access it from the Internet. Users have to physically visit the facility, and only researchers who want to mine for non-commercial purposes are currently allowed in. Malamud says his team does plan to allow remote access in the future. “The hope is to do this slowly and deliberately. We are not throwing this open right away,” he says….(More)”.

Stop Surveillance Humanitarianism

Mark Latonero at The New York Times: “A standoff between the United Nations World Food Program and Houthi rebels in control of the capital region is threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Yemen.

Alarmed by reports that food is being diverted to support the rebels, the aid program is demanding that Houthi officials allow them to deploy biometric technologies like iris scans and digital fingerprints to monitor suspected fraud during food distribution.

The Houthis have reportedly blocked food delivery, painting the biometric effort as an intelligence operation, and have demanded access to the personal data on beneficiaries of the aid. The impasse led the aid organization to the decision last month to suspend food aid to parts of the starving population — once thought of as a last resort — unless the Houthis allow biometrics.

With program officials saying their staff is prevented from doing its essential jobs, turning to a technological solution is tempting. But biometrics deployed in crises can lead to a form of surveillance humanitarianism that can exacerbate risks to privacy and security.

By surveillance humanitarianism, I mean the enormous data collection systems deployed by aid organizations that inadvertently increase the vulnerability of people in urgent need….(More)”.