How nudge theory is ageing well

Julian Baggini at the Financial Times: “A decade ago, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s book Nudge was on the desk of every serious politician and policy wonk. Its central thesis was alluringly simple: by changing the environment in which we make decisions — the “choice architecture” — people could be encouraged to do things that were good for them and for society without governments compelling them to do anything.

The idea hit the liberal sweet-spot, promising maximum social impact for minimal interference with personal freedom. In 2010, Britain’s government set up its Behavioural Insights Team — popularly known as the “nudge unit” — to put these ideas into practice.

Around the world, others followed. Sunstein is justly proud that 10m poor American children now get free breakfast and lunch during the academic year as a result of just one such intervention making enrolment for free school meals automatic.

Ten years on, Sunstein has produced two new books to win over the unconverted and boost the faith of true believers. One, On Freedom, is a tiny, commuter-friendly pamphlet between hard covers. The other, Trusting Nudges, co-authored with the behavioural economist Lucia A Reisch, is a short, thoughtful, measured and important analysis of what citizens actually think about nudging and why that matters — albeit with the dry, academic furniture of endless tables, footnotes and technical appendices.

Despite the stylistic gulf between them, the two books are best read together as a response to those who would like to give nudges the nudge, claiming that they are covert, manipulative, an insult to human agency and place too much trust in governments and too little on human reason. Not only that, but for all the hype, nudges only work at the margins, delivering relatively minor results without having any major impact on poverty, inequity or inequality.

On Freedom economically and elegantly takes apart the accusation that nudges undermine liberty. Sunstein rightly points out that a nudge is only a nudge by definition if it leaves the nudged able to choose otherwise. For example, the system adopted by several jurisdictions to put people on organ donation registers by default carries with it the right to opt out. Nor are the best nudges covert.

There may not be a sign at the canteen telling you that healthy foods have been put at the front because that’s where you’re more likely to choose them but organisations that adopt this as a policy can and should do so openly. Sunstein’s most important argument is that “we cannot wish choice architecture away”: something has to be on the supermarket shelves that people tend to take more from, something has to be the default for benefit claims. The question is not whether we nudge but how we do so: with forethought or without….(More)”

San Francisco teams up with Uber, location tracker on 911 call responses

Gwendolyn Wu at San Francisco Chronicle: “In an effort to shorten emergency response times in San Francisco, the city announced on Monday that it is now using location data from RapidSOS, a New York-based public safety tech company, and ride-hailing company Uber to improve location coordinates generated from 911 calls.

An increasing amount of emergency calls are made from cell phones, said Michelle Cahn, RapidSOS’s director of community engagement. The new technology should allow emergency responders to narrow down the location of such callers and replace existing 911 technology that was built for landlines and tied to home addresses.

Cell phone location data currently given to dispatchers when they receive a 911 call can be vague, especially if the person can’t articulate their exact location, according to the Department of Emergency Management.

But if a dispatcher can narrow down where the emergency is happening, that increases the chance of a timely response and better result, Cahn said.

“It doesn’t matter what’s going on with the emergency if we don’t know where it is,” she said.

RapidSOS shares its location data — collected by Apple and Google for their in-house map apps — free of charge to public safety agencies. San Francisco’s 911 call center adopted the data service in September 2018.

The Federal Communications Commission estimates agencies could save as many as 10,000 lives a year if they shave a minute off response times. Federal officials issued new rules to improve wireless 911 calls in 2015, asking mobile carriers to provide more accurate locations to call centers. Carriers are required to find a way to triangulate the caller’s location within 50 meters — a much smaller radius than the eight blocks city officials were initially presented in October when the caller dialed 911…(More)”.

Drones to deliver medicines to 12m people in Ghana

Neil Munshi in the Financial Times: “The world’s largest drone delivery network, ferrying 150 different medicines and vaccines, as well as blood, to 2,000 clinics in remote parts of Ghana, is set to be announced on Wednesday.

The network represents a big expansion for the Silicon Valley start-up Zipline, which began delivering blood in Rwanda in 2016 using pilotless, preprogrammed aircraft. The move, along with a new agreement in Rwanda signed in December, takes the company beyond simple blood distribution to more complicated vaccine and plasma deliveries.

“What this is going to show is that you can reach every GPS co-ordinate, you can serve everybody,” said Keller Rinaudo, Zipline chief executive. “Every human in that region or country [can be] within a 15-25 minute delivery of any essential medical product — it’s a different way of thinking about universal coverage.”

Zipline will deliver vaccines for yellow fever, polio, diptheria and tetanus which are provided by the World Health Organisation’s Expanded Project on Immunisation. The WHO will also use the company’s system for future mass immunisation programmes in Ghana.

Later this year, Zipline has plans to start operations in the US, in North Carolina, and in south-east Asia. The company said it will be able to serve 100m people within a year, up from the 22m that its projects in Ghana and Rwanda will cover.

In Ghana, Zipline said health workers will receive deliveries via a parachute drop within about 30 minutes of placing their orders by text message….(More)”.

Open data promotes citizen engagement at the local level

Afua Bruce at the Hill: “The city of Los Angeles recently released three free apps for its citizens: one to report broken street lighting, one to make 311 requests and one to get early alerts about earthquakes. Though it may seem like the city is just following a trend to modernize, the apps are part of a much larger effort to spread awareness of the more than 1,100 datasets that the city has publicized for citizens to view, analyze and share. In other words, the city has officially embraced the open data movement.

In the past few years, communities across the country have realized the power of data once only available to government. Often, the conversation about data focuses on criminal justice, because the demand for this data is being met by high-profile projects like Kamala Harris’ Open Justice Initiative, which makes California criminal justice data available to the citizenry and  the Open Data Policing Project, which provides a publicly searchable database of stop, search and use-of-force data. But the possibilities for data go far beyond justice and show the possibility for use in a variety of spaces, such as efforts to preserve local wildlifetrack potholes and  understand community health trends….(More)”.

How Recommendation Algorithms Run the World

Article by Zeynep Tufekci: “What should you watch? What should you read? What’s news? What’s trending? Wherever you go online, companies have come up with very particular, imperfect ways of answering these questions. Everywhere you look, recommendation engines offer striking examples of how values and judgments become embedded in algorithms and how algorithms can be gamed by strategic actors.

Consider a common, seemingly straightforward method of making suggestions: a recommendation based on what people “like you” have read, watched, or shopped for. What exactly is a person like me? Which dimension of me? Is it someone of the same age, gender, race, or location? Do they share my interests? My eye color? My height? Or is their resemblance to me determined by a whole mess of “big data” (aka surveillance) crunched by a machine-learning algorithm?

Deep down, behind every “people like you” recommendation is a computational method for distilling stereotypes through data. Even when these methods work, they can help entrench the stereotypes they’re mobilizing. They might easily recommend books about coding to boys and books about fashion to girls, simply by tracking the next most likely click. Of course, that creates a feedback cycle: If you keep being shown coding books, you’re probably more likely to eventually check one out.

Another common method for generating recommendations is to extrapolate from patterns in how people consume things. People who watched this then watched that; shoppers who purchased this item also added that one to their shopping cart. Amazon uses this method a lot, and I admit, it’s often quite useful. Buy an electric toothbrush? How nice that the correct replacement head appears in your recommendations. Congratulations on your new vacuum cleaner: Here are some bags that fit your machine.

But these recommendations can also be revealing in ways that are creepy. …

One final method for generating recommendations is to identify what’s “trending” and push that to a broader user base. But this, too, involves making a lot of judgments….(More)”.

Five myths about whistleblowers

Dana Gold in the Washington Post: “When a whistleblower revealed the Trump administration’s decision to overturn 25 security clearance denials, it was the latest in a long and storied history of insiders exposing significant abuses of public trust. Whistles were blown on U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the Watergate coverupEnron’s financial fraud, the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance of domestic electronic communications and, during the Trump administration, the corruption of former Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt , Cambridge Analytica’s theft of Facebook users’ data to develop targeted political ads, and harm to children posed by the “zero tolerance” immigration policy. Despite the essential role whistleblowers play in illuminating the truth and protecting the public interest, several myths persist about them, some pernicious.

MYTH NO. 1 Whistleblowers are employees who report problems externally….

MYTH NO. 2 Whistleblowers are either disloyal or heroes….

MYTH NO. 3 ‘Leaker’ is another term for ‘whistleblower.’…

MYTH NO. 4 Remaining anonymous is the best strategy for whistleblowing….

MYTH NO. 5 Julian Assange is a whistleblower….(More)”.

Illuminating Big Data will leave governments in the dark

Robin Wigglesworth in the Financial Times: “Imagine a world where interminable waits for backward-looking, frequently-revised economic data seem as archaically quaint as floppy disks, beepers and a civil internet. This fantasy realm may be closer than you think.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis will soon publish its preliminary estimate for US economic growth in the first three months of the year, finally catching up on its regular schedule after a government shutdown paralysed the agency. But other data are still delayed, and the final official result for US gross domestic product won’t be available until July. Along the way there are likely to be many tweaks.

Collecting timely and accurate data are a Herculean task, especially for an economy as vast and varied as the US’s. But last week’s World Bank-International Monetary Fund’s annual spring meetings offered some clues on a brighter, more digital future for economic data.

The IMF hosted a series of seminars and discussions exploring how the hot new world of Big Data could be harnessed to produce more timely economic figures — and improve economic forecasts. Jiaxiong Yao, an IMF official in its African department, explained how it could use satellites to measure the intensity of night-time lights, and derive a real-time gauge of economic health.

“If a country gets brighter over time, it is growing. If it is getting darker then it probably needs an IMF programme,” he noted. Further sessions explored how the IMF could use machine learning — a popular field of artificial intelligence — to improve its influential but often faulty economic forecasts; and real-time shipping data to map global trade flows.

Sophisticated hedge funds have been mining some of these new “alternative” data sets for some time, but statistical agencies, central banks and multinational organisations such as the IMF and the World Bank are also starting to embrace the potential.

The amount of digital data around the world is already unimaginably vast. As more of our social and economic activity migrates online, the quantity and quality is going to increase exponentially. The potential is mind-boggling. Setting aside the obvious and thorny privacy issues, it is likely to lead to a revolution in the world of economic statistics. …

Yet the biggest issues are not the weaknesses of these new data sets — all statistics have inherent flaws — but their nature and location.

Firstly, it depends on the lax regulatory and personal attitudes towards personal data continuing, and there are signs of a (healthy) backlash brewing.

Secondly, almost all of this alternative data is being generated and stored in the private sector, not by government bodies such as the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Eurostat or the UK’s Office for National Statistics.

Public bodies are generally too poorly funded to buy or clean all this data themselves, meaning hedge funds will benefit from better economic data than the broader public. We might, in fact, need legislation mandating that statistical agencies receive free access to any aggregated private sector data sets that might be useful to their work.

That would ensure that our economic officials and policymakers don’t fly blind in an increasingly illuminated world….(More)”.

There Are Better Ways to Do Democracy

Article by Peter Coy: “The Brexit disaster has stained the reputation of direct democracy. The United Kingdom’s trauma began in 2016, when then-Prime Minister David Cameron miscalculated that he could strengthen Britain’s attachment to the European Union by calling a referendum on it. The Leave campaign made unkeepable promises about Brexit’s benefits. Voters spent little time studying the facts because there was a vanishingly small chance that any given vote would make the difference by breaking a tie. Leave won—and Google searches for “What is the EU” spiked after the polls closed.

Brexit is only one manifestation of a global problem. Citizens want elected officials to be as responsive as Uber drivers, but they don’t always take their own responsibilities seriously. This problem isn’t new. America’s Founding Fathers worried that democracy would devolve into mob rule; the word “democracy” appears nowhere in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.

While fears about democratic dysfunction are understandable, there are ways to make voters into real participants in the democratic process without giving in to mobocracy. Instead of referendums, which often become lightning rods for extremism, political scientists say it’s better to make voters think like jurors, whose decisions affect the lives and fortunes of others.

Guided deliberation, also known as deliberative democracy, is one way to achieve that. Ireland used it in 2016 and 2017 to help decide whether to repeal a constitutional amendment that banned abortion in most cases. A 99-person Citizens’ Assembly was selected to mirror the Irish population. It met over five weekends to evaluate input from lawyers and obstetricians, pro-life and pro-choice groups, and more than 13,000 written submissions from the public, guided by a chairperson from the Irish supreme court. Together they concluded that the legislature should have the power to allow abortion under a broader set of conditions, a recommendation that voters approved in a 2018 referendum; abortion in Ireland became legal in January 2019.

Done right, deliberative democracy brings out the best in citizens. “My experience shows that some of the most polarising issues can be tackled in this manner,” Louise Caldwell, an Irish assembly member, wrote in a column for the Guardian in January. India’s village assemblies, which involve all the adults in local decision-making, are a form of deliberative democracy on a grand scale. A March article in the journal Science says that “evidence from places such as Colombia, Belgium, Northern Ireland, and Bosnia shows that properly structured deliberation can promote recognition, understanding, and learning.” Even French President Emmanuel Macron has used it, convening a three-month “great debate” to solicit the public’s views on some of the issues raised by the sometimes-violent Yellow Vest movement. On April 8, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe presented one key finding: The French have “zero tolerance” for new taxes…(More)”.

Tracking Phones, Google Is a Dragnet for the Police

Jennifer Valentino-DeVries at the New York Times: “….The warrants, which draw on an enormous Google database employees call Sensorvault, turn the business of tracking cellphone users’ locations into a digital dragnet for law enforcement. In an era of ubiquitous data gathering by tech companies, it is just the latest example of how personal information — where you go, who your friends are, what you read, eat and watch, and when you do it — is being used for purposes many people never expected. As privacy concerns have mounted among consumers, policymakers and regulators, tech companies have come under intensifying scrutiny over their data collection practices.

The Arizona case demonstrates the promise and perils of the new investigative technique, whose use has risen sharply in the past six months, according to Google employees familiar with the requests. It can help solve crimes. But it can also snare innocent people.

Technology companies have for years responded to court orders for specific users’ information. The new warrants go further, suggesting possible suspects and witnesses in the absence of other clues. Often, Google employees said, the company responds to a single warrant with location information on dozens or hundreds of devices.

Law enforcement officials described the method as exciting, but cautioned that it was just one tool….

The technique illustrates a phenomenon privacy advocates have long referred to as the “if you build it, they will come” principle — anytime a technology company creates a system that could be used in surveillance, law enforcement inevitably comes knocking. Sensorvault, according to Google employees, includes detailed location records involving at least hundreds of millions of devices worldwide and dating back nearly a decade….(More)”.

The Privacy Project

The New York Times: “Companies and governments are gaining new powers to follow people across the internet and around the world, and even to peer into their genomes. The benefits of such advances have been apparent for years; the costs — in anonymity, even autonomy — are now becoming clearer. The boundaries of privacy are in dispute, and its future is in doubt. Citizens, politicians and business leaders are asking if societies are making the wisest tradeoffs. The Times is embarking on this months long project to explore the technology and where it’s taking us, and to convene debate about how it can best help realize human potential….(More)”

Does Privacy Matter?

What Do They Know, and How Do They Know It?

What Should Be Done About This?

What Can I Do?

(View all Privacy articles…)