When what was new becomes old

Alliance Magazine published my article,  From the Edge to the Middle, a few months ago and has now made it available for free to everyone.


(what if) we are not alone

(photo: http://www.hawking.org.uk/images.html)

Today's headlines are bursting with announcements of Yuri Milner's $100 million gift in search of alien life. Professor Hawking (pictured above) accompanied Mr. Milner when he made the announcement.

Let's suppose this philanthropic grant is effective. The scientists find extraterrestrial intelligent life.  Does the fact that the search was philanthropically-funded matter?

Does Mr. Milner get first dibs on meeting our new neighbors?
Do the UC scientists get to negotiate international(galactic) diplomatic ties?
Do all the citizen scientists who've been donating their computing power to @SETI at home get first dibs on space travel vouchers to the exoplanets?
Are there naming rights at stake?

To their credit, the funders and scientists are making all of the data from the Breakthrough Listen project open and available to any person interested. Which is right-on from the perspective of humans, but assumes that "aliens" don't mind having their conversations shared with everyone on our planet. 

(I don't know why this struck me. Just because.)

Good luck to the astronomers, engineers, and home scientists.


(photo credit: ISP)
[This is not an "anti-data, anti-measurement" screed. This is a plea to "understand the data."]

What do you do when the data sources you are looking at indicate that there are more black men in prison than there are alive? If you are Becky Pettit, Sociologist at University of Washington, you write a book called Invisible Men.

If you are in nonprofits, community organizations, foundations, or a citizen of the world - you should #QuestionTheData. When the data don't make sense,  ask how is such a thing possible? Who is doing the data collection? What are they looking for? What are they counting? What are they not counting? Who are they missing?

In our age of data we all need greater data literacy. We need to #QuestionTheData. We need to understand that data are "man made" - they are socially constructed by those who are collecting them. We need to abandon the belief that data are objective and somehow "natural" and recognize that they are useful and constructed.

Here's some old tropes that - when taken out of their intended contexts - highlight the interplay between data and purpose and should inspire us to question all data and all data sources.
  • You can't manage something if you can't measure it. 
  • What gets measured, matters.
  • Not everything that matters can be measured.  
Taken together those tropes point to the intentions behind certain data collection practices (management), the implications of measuring some things (some things don't get measured), and the challenge of turning every worthwhile objective into quantifiable metrics (or data). The tropes are meant to inspire the use of measurement and data, and I'm all for that, as long as we're also trying to be clear on what we're doing, what the data are, what they are not, and what else is needed to make sense.

The Open Knowledge Foundation's new paper on Democratising the Data Revolution gets to the heart of what civil society needs to be doing in the age of big data. Boiling down their report to a bumper sticker, I propose #QuestionTheData.

Download Democratising the Data Revolution here.

Ethical, Safe, and Effective use of Digital Data in Civil Society

A great set of speeches from the Media Impact Funders Conference - Van Jones, Brewster Kahle, Erin McKean, Craig Newmark. And me.

All the speeches are here.

Minimum viable data collection

I worked for the federal government for several months in 1989. Along with at least 21,499,999 other people information that can be used to identify me (and as me) was stolen from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. I held up the letter I'd received about this while giving a speech recently (hard copy, put it back in my pocket immediately) and several people in an audience of foundation and media professionals nodded and raised their hands. They'd received the same letter.

Government, hacked. Big companies (Sony, Target, etc), hacked. Health insurers, hacked. 

Nonprofits and foundations - really? You think you can protect our info? I don't. Individually and collectively I think you lack the resources, the skills, the financial capacity, and, sadly, probably, the knowledge and the will.

So, please, reconsider your collection policies.

What do you really need to collect? From whom and why? What are you using it for? What information proxies might you use instead? Can you store the info offline (disconnected from the Internet). Can you destroy it, please, after you've used it?

Can you answer the evaluation questions you have and attain the program improvement you seek and create datasets with research and policy value without collecting information that can be triangulated back to identify individuals? Without collecting any personally identifiable information (PII)? Really? I bet you can. At the very least, I bet we can all do much better at this than we have been.

If we think hard and creatively about it I bet we can have both - the answers we seek and the privacy we are ethically obligated to provide. The privacy we seek to respect is also a precursor to the "open" we claim to want.

Tech start ups and design engineers love to talk about "minimum viable product." This means getting the most basic functionality out to the public and in use as fast as you can. This reflects the value they place on feedback, iteration, and moving fast toward market share.

In civil society, our approach should reflect a different set of values. Seeking public benefit while respecting private choice. This calls for a different approach - "minimum viable data collection."

Let's do it.