Scholars Call for the Urgent Need for Ethics and Regulation at the Data-Society Interface

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Crown Family School News

A New Report Raises the Implications of the “Datafication” of Society.

Today’s world is experiencing an explosion of new data and analytic methods, and society is only just beginning to understand the consequences for data to reshape social life. As new forms of data and analysis affect practice in fields as diverse as criminal justice, agriculture, social services, health, education, disaster management, and city governance, scholars and thought leaders are starting to examine what the authors of a new report refer to as the “data-society interface.”

“Emerging Directions in the Data-Society Interface,” written by Nicole P. Marwell and Cameron Day, pulls together information from different scholarly fields to illuminate key issues posed by our growing reliance on data. This report is designed to give decision-makers in fields such as government, philanthropy and nonprofit organizations an overview of the data-related issues they will likely confront in their everyday work.

Data is being produced, analyzed, and leveraged to inform action at a breadth and scale that far exceeds anything that has been seen before, even in the recent past. Despite this transformation, Marwell and Day believe that data remains what it always has been: a tool that should be used in service to human contemplation, assessment, and decision-making. These scholars believe that viewing data as a solution in itself, as a substitute for the debate that occurs in the realms of ethics and politics, is a grave mistake. They state that it is incumbent upon society to understand how and why we use data, how we make meaning from it, and how we can hold these processes accountable to our values and serve our broader collective goals for improving society.

Nicole P. Marwell, an Associate Professor at the University of Chicago Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice and Cameron Day, a PhD student in the University of Chicago Department of Sociology explain the urgency in this report. “If we continue to view data and analytics as value-free and objective, we blind ourselves to the ways this technology carries social and political choices, costs, and benefits.”

The scholars pose several questions that challenge society’s tendency to take new technology for granted, and especially to assume that technology always brings progress. They emphasize the relationship between human life and the tech­nology it uses while pushing to consider the deeper social implications and how society might better develop technologies whose goal is not simply to maximize efficiency or effectiveness, but rather to serve human needs holistically.

The report also presents examples of real-life solutions, such as the European Union’s approach to data privacy, as well as a call for ethics and regulation. The authors hope that these questions, examples, and recommendations can help to inform the public and spark a dialogue around the use of data and its implications for privacy, analytic interpretability, and fair­ness. Read the entire report in PDF format here. If you need assistance in accessing this report, please contact Associate Professor Nicole P. Marwell.

Support for this report was provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Read “What can we do about biases baked into data?” from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation blog.