Community Data as Collective Care

Society if data was used for public good.

Public Good = Empowering the Public

What is public good? Let’s consider the following scenario: a bridge that connects members of a community separated by a river could be an example of public good. But would a bridge continue to be public good in a community that isn’t centered around a river? What if the community is centered around a river, but already has a complex and efficient canal system? What if community members don’t want a bridge? Without accounting for the idiosyncrasies at hand, a new bridge becomes a hindrance rather than public good.

Data: “The Things We Measure and Care About”

The technologies that power those utopian designer futures are often packaged together as a ‘smart city.’ In a smart city, sensors are used to gather data in situ. Algorithms then use the data to detect patterns that are used for identification, prediction, and recommendation, and actuators respond to the data in real time (Ratti & Claudel, 2016). Data can be construed as the activities and patterns of people, but in context, data is proof of our experiences. Data can be a conversation between friends or the birth of a baby. Mimi Ọnụọha succinctly defines data as “the things we measure and care about” (Ọnụọha, 2018). When communities have the power to measure, or to collect data themselves, they can deepen their understanding of their own experiences, advocate for themselves, and manifest their ideals of public good.

Data as Autonomy

When a user has access to such data, they reflect. I do this using Untappd, an app that I use to ‘check in’ the beers I drink. I look back at my check-ins and use the beer, date, and location to remember the night I split a rich barrel-aged stout after work with a friend who now lives far away — a memory I would have otherwise forgotten. I can also use Untappd to remember which beers I liked, which I didn’t, and use that knowledge to better understand what might be fun to try in the future. Accessing my data through Untappd brings me closer to intimate moments from my past and helps me make informed decisions about what I want to consume.

Ethical Options for Designers

Under these circumstances it is difficult if not impossible for users to be empowered. To resist, groups advocate for bans on facial recognition tools. These bans do keep citizens safe from facial recognition, but focusing on a single identification method doesn’t account for the technology that can identify people by their heartbeat, gait, iris patterns, and fingerprints (Schneier, 2020). Designers can look to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) passed in Europe to support transparent data collection that is limited in purpose and scope, accurate, and confidential (Albrecht, 2016). However, while the GDPR lays out a strong foundation of informed consent, it doesn’t account for the fact that humans exist in communities of affiliation. Data can exist as social interactions like drinks between friends, or more subtle associations like sharing the same wifi network (Eveleth, 2020). Multiple people are involved in these types of data production — so while only one person may give consent, they may unknowingly implicate those they’re involved with.

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