‘Very Harmful’ Lack of Data Blunts U.S. Response to Outbreaks

Paper by Sharon LaFraniere: “After a middle-aged woman tested positive for Covid-19 in January at her workplace in Fairbanks, public health workers sought answers to questions vital to understanding how the virus was spreading in Alaska’s rugged interior.

The woman, they learned, had underlying conditions and had not been vaccinated. She had been hospitalized but had recovered. Alaska and many other states have routinely collected that kind of information about people who test positive for the virus. Part of the goal is to paint a detailed picture of how one of the worst scourges in American history evolves and continues to kill hundreds of people daily, despite determined efforts to stop it.

But most of the information about the Fairbanks woman — and tens of millions more infected Americans — remains effectively lost to state and federal epidemiologists. Decades of underinvestment in public health information systems has crippled efforts to understand the pandemic, stranding crucial data in incompatible data systems so outmoded that information often must be repeatedly typed in by hand. The data failure, a salient lesson of a pandemic that has killed more than one million Americans, will be expensive and time-consuming to fix….(More)”.

The precise cost in needless illness and death cannot be quantified. The nation’s comparatively low vaccination rate is clearly a major factor in why the United States has recorded the highest Covid death rate among large, wealthy nations. But federal experts are certain that the lack of comprehensive, timely data has also exacted a heavy toll.

“It has been very harmful to our response,” said Dr. Ashish K. Jha, who leads the White House effort to control the pandemic. “It’s made it much harder to respond quickly.”

Details of the Fairbanks woman’s case were scattered among multiple state databases, none of which connect easily to the others, much less to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the federal agency in charge of tracking the virus. Nine months after she fell ill, her information was largely useless to epidemiologists because it was impossible to synthesize most of it with data on the roughly 300,000 other Alaskans and the 95 million-plus other Americans who have gotten Covid.

A Massive LinkedIn Study Reveals Who Actually Helps You Get That Job

Article by Viviane Callier : “If you want a new job, don’t just rely on friends or family. According to one of the most influential theories in social science, you’re more likely to nab a new position through your “weak ties,” loose acquaintances with whom you have few mutual connections. Sociologist Mark Granovetter first laid out this idea in a 1973 paper that has garnered more than 65,000 citations. But the theory, dubbed “the strength of weak ties,” after the title of Granovetter’s study, lacked causal evidence for decades. Now a sweeping study that looked at more than 20 million people on the professional social networking site LinkedIn over a five-year period finally shows that forging weak ties does indeed help people get new jobs. And it reveals which types of connections are most important for job hunters…Along with job seekers, policy makers could also learn from the new paper. “One thing the study highlights is the degree to which algorithms are guiding fundamental, baseline, important outcomes, like employment and unemployment,” Aral says. The role that LinkedIn’s People You May Know function plays in gaining a new job demonstrates “the tremendous leverage that algorithms have on employment and probably other factors of the economy as well.” It also suggests that such algorithms could create bellwethers for economic changes: in the same way that the Federal Reserve looks at the Consumer Price Index to decide whether to hike interest rates, Aral suggests, networks such as LinkedIn might provide new data sources to help policy makers parse what is happening in the economy. “I think these digital platforms are going to be an important source of that,” he says…(More)”

Changing Perceptions about Harm Can Temper Moral Outrage

Article by Jordan Wylie and Ana Gantman: “Comprehensive sex education works. Years of research show that it is much more effective than an abstinence-only approach at preventing teen pregnancy. In fact, abstinence-only programs may actually increase unplanned pregnancies and can contribute to harmful shaming and sexist attitudes.

Yet abstinence, or “sexual risk avoidance,” programs persist in the U.S. Why? Ultimately many people believe that teenagers should not have sex. If adolescents just abstain, they reason, unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases will no longer be a problem. By contrast, comprehensive sex education operates under the premise that some young people do engage in sexual behavior, so it is worthwhile to help them understand how to avoid unwanted outcomes. For dedicated abstinence-only advocates, however, that approach is morally wrong.

Given the deeply held moral beliefs many people bring to this topic, it’s easy to think the debate over sex ed is doomed to a stalemate between those who want to ban it and those who want to promote it. And this is just one of several subjects where policy makers face a tough choice: ban or prohibit a potentially harmful activity, or allow it to continue while mitigating the harm. Mitigation options include needle-exchange programs that help people who use intravenous drugs lower their risk of contracting blood-borne illnesses. Another example is mandatory waiting periods for firearms purchases, which allow people to possess firearms but also reduce homicides.

These harm-reduction strategies are often effective, but they can be unpopular. That’s because issues like sexual behavior, drug use and gun ownership involve highly moralized opinions. Research shows that when people feel moral outrage toward a behavior, they are more likely to support policies that aim to completely stop that activity rather than make it safer.

But our research suggests that not all expressions of moral outrage are alike. Through a series of studies that involved surveying more than 1,000 Americans, we found that, in some cases, people base their moral opposition on the harm that an action causes. In those instances, if you can find ways to make an activity safer, you can also make it more morally acceptable…(More)”

Math for Future Scientists: Require Statistics, Not Calculus

Essay by Robert C. Thornett: “The common requirement to pass calculus in order to major in a science is a killer of students’ dreams. And it unnecessarily limits the pool of future scientists.

Charles Darwin is a classic example of a genius naturalist who was not a natural at math. As a young man, he sailed around the world aboard the HMS Beagle and explored the giant tortoises and iguanas of the Galapagos, the rainforests of Brazil, and the coral reefs of the South Pacific. From these sorts of direct engagements with nature, he developed his theory of evolution, which revolutionized science. But Darwin wrote in his autobiography that after studying math as a young man, he found that “it was repugnant to me.” When statistics stumped Darwin during his experiments investigating the advantages of crossbreeding plants, he called his cousin, the statistician Francis Galton, to try to make sense of the numbers.

Similarly, Thomas Edison said that as a boy he had a “distaste for mathematics.” But this did not stop him from becoming one of the most famous scientific inventors of all time. “I can always hire a mathematician,” said Edison, “but they can’t hire me.” Edison was so interested in chemistry that at the age of 13, when he got a job as a newsboy and concessionaire on the Grand Trunk Railroad, he brought a chemistry set aboard so he could do experiments during layovers. Math and science are distinctly different fields, and a talent for one does not imply a talent for the other.

According to professor emeritus Andrew Hacker of Queens College of the City University of New York, less than five percent of Americans will ever use any higher math at all in their jobs, including not only calculus but algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. And less than one percent will ever use calculus on the job. Born in 1929 and holding a PhD from Princeton, Hacker taught college political science for decades and has also been a math professor. His book The Math Myth: And Other STEM Delusions argues that not only college students but high school students should not be required to take algebra, geometry, trigonometry, or calculus at all. Hacker points out that not passing ninth grade algebra is the foremost academic indicator that a student will drop out of high school.

Before the objections tumble forth, I should emphasize that both Hacker and I like math and neither of us wants to remove all math requirements; we want to improve them. And I believe high school students should be required to study algebra and geometry. But Hacker’s larger argument is that both high schools and colleges should switch to teaching more useful types of math that can help students navigate the real world. He says American schools teach basic arithmetic well up to around middle school, but they stop there when they should continue teaching what he calls “adult arithmetic” or “sophisticated arithmetic” rather than veer off into more abstract types of math…(More)”.

California Governor Signs Sweeping Children’s Online Safety Bill

Article by Natasha Singer: “California will adopt a broad new approach to protecting children online after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill on Thursday that could transform how many social networks, games and other services treat minors.

Despite opposition from the tech industry, the State Legislature unanimously approved the bill at the end of August. It is the first state statute in the nation requiring online services likely to be used by youngsters to install wide-ranging safeguards for users under 18.

Among other things, the measure will require sites and apps to curb the risks that certain popular features — like allowing strangers to message one another — may pose to younger users. It will also require online services to turn on the highest privacy settings by default for children.

“We’re taking aggressive action in California to protect the health and well-being of our kids,” Governor Newsom said in a statement that heralded the new law as “bipartisan landmark legislation” aimed at protecting the well-being, data and privacy of children.

Called the California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act, the new legislation compels online services to take a proactive approach to safety — by designing their products and features from the outset with the “best interests” of young users in mind.

The California measure could apply to a wide range of popular digital products that people under 18 are likely to use: social networks, game platforms, connected toys, voice assistants and digital learning tools for schools. It could also affect children far beyond the state, prompting some services to introduce changes nationwide, rather than treat minors in California differently…(More)”.

Why its Time for a New Approach to Civic Tech

Article by Anthony Zacharzewski: “…It’s true that there has been some recent innovation around this theme, including tools designed to support audio and video-based deliberation…However, the needs of modern participation and democracy are changing in a far more fundamental way, and the civic tech field needs to do more to keep pace.

For years, civic tech has focused on the things that digital tools do well – data, numbers, and text. It has often emphasised written comments, voting ideas up and down, and the statistical analysis of responses. And perhaps most tellingly, it has focused on single events, whether participatory budgeting processes or major events such as the Conference on the Future of Europe. 

Many of these approaches are essentially digitised versions of physical processes, but we are starting to realise now that one-off processes are not enough. Rather, civic tech tools need to bring people into longer-term conversations, with wider participation. 

This is where the next generation of civic tech tools needs to focus. 

Today, it is easy for a participant in a participatory budgeting process to use a polished digital interface to suggest an idea or to vote.

However, nothing on these platforms enables people to stay in the democratic conversation once they have had their say, to stay informed on the issues in their area, or to find opportunities to participate elsewhere. Even platforms such as Decidim and Consul, which allow people to participate in multiple different processes, still have a fundamentally process- and discussion-based model…(More)”

Five-year campaign breaks science’s citation paywall

Article by Dalmeet Singh Chawla: “The more than 60 million scientific-journal papers indexed by Crossref — the database that registers DOIs, or digital object identifiers, for many of the world’s academic publications — now contain reference lists that are free to access and reuse.

The milestone, announced on Twitter on 18 August, is the result of an effort by the Initiative for Open Citations (I4OC), launched in 2017. Open-science advocates have for years campaigned to make papers’ citation data accessible under liberal copyright licences so that they can be studied, and those analyses shared. Free access to citations enables researchers to identify research trends, lets them conduct studies on which areas of research need funding, and helps them to spot when scientists are manipulating citation counts….

The move means that bibliometricians, scientometricians and information scientists will be able to reuse citation data in any way they please under the most liberal copyright licence, called CC0. This, in turn, allows other researchers to build on their work.

Before I4OC, researchers generally had to obtain permission to access data from major scholarly databases such as Web of Science and Scopus, and weren’t able to share the samples.

However, the opening up of Crossref articles’ citations doesn’t mean that all the world’s scholarly content now has open references. Although most major international academic publishers, including Elsevier, Springer Nature (which publishes Nature) and Taylor & Francis, index their papers on Crossref, some do not. These often include regional and non-English-language publications.

I4OC co-founder Dario Taraborelli, who is science programme officer at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and based in San Francisco, California, says that the next challenge will be to encourage publishers who don’t already deposit reference data in Crossref to do so….(More)”.

Rethinking Intelligence In A More-Than-Human World

Essay by Amanda Rees: “We spend a lot of time debating intelligence — what does it mean? Who has it? And especially lately — can technology help us create or enhance it?

But for a species that relies on its self-declared “wisdom” to differentiate itself from all other animals, a species that consistently defines itself as intelligent and rational, Homo sapiens tends to do some strikingly foolish things — creating the climate crisis, for example, or threatening the survival of our world with nuclear disaster, or creating ever-more-powerful and pervasive algorithms. 

If we are in fact to be “wise,” we need to learn to manage a range of different and potentially existential risks relating to (and often created by) our technological interventions in the bio-social ecologies we inhabit. We need, in short, to rethink what it means to be intelligent. 

Points Of Origin

Part of the problem is that we think of both “intelligence” and “agency” as objective, identifiable, measurable human characteristics. But they’re not. At least in part, both concepts are instead the product of specific historical circumstances. “Agency,” for example, emerges with the European Enlightenment, perhaps best encapsulated in Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s “Oration on the Dignity of Man.” Writing in the late 15th century, Mirandola revels in the fact that to humanity alone “it is granted to have whatever he chooses, to be whatever he wills. … On man … the Father conferred the seeds of all kinds and the germs of every way of life. Whatever seeds each man cultivates will grow to maturity and bear in him their own fruit.”

In other words, what makes humans unique is their possession of the God-given capacity to exercise free will — to take rational, self-conscious action in order to achieve specific ends. Today, this remains the model of agency that underpins significant and influential areas of public discourse. It resonates strongly with neoliberalist reforms of economic policy, for example, as well as with debates on public health responsibility and welfare spending. 

A few hundred years later, the modern version of “intelligence” appears, again in Europe, where it came to be understood as a capacity for ordered, rational, problem-solving, pattern-recognizing cognition. Through the work of the eugenicist Francis Galton, among others, intelligence soon came to be regarded as an innate quality possessed by individuals to greater or lesser degree, which could be used to sort populations into hierarchies of social access and economic reward…(More)”.

Unlocking the Potential of Open 990 Data

Article by Cinthia Schuman Ottinger & Jeff Williams: “As the movement to expand public use of nonprofit data collected by the Internal Revenue Service advances, it’s a good time to review how far the social sector has come and how much work remains to reach the full potential of this treasure trove…Organizations have employed open Form 990 data in numerous ways, including to:

  • Create new tools for donors.For instance, the Nonprofit Aid Visualizer, a partnership between Candid and Vanguard Charitable, uses open 990 data to find communities vulnerable to COVID-19, and help address both their immediate needs and long-term recovery. Another tool, COVID-19 Urgent Service Provider Support Tool, developed by the consulting firm BCT Partners, uses 990 data to direct donors to service providers that are close to communities most affected by COVID-19.
  • More efficiently prosecute charitable fraud. This includes a campaign by the New York Attorney General’s Office that recovered $1.7 million from sham charities and redirected funds to legitimate groups.
  • Generate groundbreaking findings on fundraising, volunteers, equity, and management. researcher at Texas Tech University, for example, explored more than a million e-filed 990s to overturn long-held assumptions about the role of cash in fundraising. He found that when nonprofits encourage noncash gifts as opposed to only cash contributions, financial contributions to those organizations increase over time.
  • Shed light on harmful practices that hurt the poor. A large-scale investigative analysis of nonprofit hospitals’ tax forms revealed that 45 percent of them sent a total of $2.7 billion in medical bills to patients whose incomes were likely low enough to qualify for free or discounted care. When this practice was publicly exposed, some hospitals reevaluated their practices and erased unpaid bills for qualifying patients. The expense of mining data like this previously made such research next to impossible.
  • Help donors make more informed giving decisions. In hopes of maximizing contributions to Ukrainian relief efforts, a record number of donors are turning to resources like Charity Navigator, which can now use open Form 990 data to evaluate and rate a large number of charities based on finances, governance, and other factors. At the same time, donors informed by open 990 data can seek more accountability from the organizations they support. For example, anti-corruption researchers scouring open 990 data and other records uncovered donations by Russian oligarchs aligned with President Putin. This pressured US nonprofits that accepted money from the oligarchs to disavow this funding…(More)”.

Community science draws on the power of the crowd

Essay by Amber Dance: “In community science, also called participatory science, non-professionals contribute their time, energy or expertise to research. (The term ‘citizen science’ is also used but can be perceived as excluding non-citizens.)

Whatever name is used, the approach is more popular than ever and even has journals dedicated to it. The number of annual publications mentioning ‘citizen science’ went from 151 in 2015 to more than 640 in 2021, according to the Web of Science database. Researchers from physiologists to palaeontologists to astronomers are finding that harnessing the efforts of ordinary people is often the best route to the answers they seek.

“More and more funding organizations are actually promoting this type of participatory- and citizen-science data gathering,” says Bálint Balázs, managing director of the Environmental Social Science Research Group in Budapest, a non-profit company focusing on socio-economic research for sustainability.

Community science is also a great tool for outreach, and scientists often delight in interactions with amateur researchers. But it’s important to remember that community science is, foremost, a research methodology like any other, with its own requirements in terms of skill and effort.

“To do a good project, it does require an investment in time,” says Darlene Cavalier, founder of SciStarter, an online clearing house that links research-project leaders with volunteers. “It’s not something where you’re just going to throw up a Google form and hope for the best.” Although there are occasions when scientific data are freely and easily available, other projects create significant costs.

No matter what the topic or approach, people skills are crucial: researchers must identify and cultivate a volunteer community and provide regular feedback or rewards. With the right protocols and checks and balances, the quality of volunteer-gathered data often rivals or surpasses that achieved by professionals.

“There is a two-way learning that happens,” says Tina Phillips, assistant director of the Center for Engagement in Science and Nature at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “We all know that science is better when there are more voices, more perspectives.”…(More)”