danah boyd on Democracy's Data Infrastructure

03 Apr, 2021

danah boyd on Democracy's Data Infrastructure

BCNM alum and media studies academic danah boyd co-authored an essay with Dan Bouk for the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University titled, "Democracy's Data Infrastructure." The piece delves into the techno-politics of the U.S. census through case studies and rigorous cultural and historical analysis. It is part of a new Knight Institute and Law and Political Economy Project essay series on big data and democracy and poses thought-provoking questions at the intersection of technology, politics, and society.

From the paper:

In July 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau issued a Federal Register notice asking census data users to provide information about what data they used, at what level of geography, and how these use cases might affect different populations. This request for feedback did not announce to those users—local governments, social scientists, and the public at large—that its purpose was to facilitate a massive change in how data about the nation would be produced. A month later, the bureau’s chief scientist, John Abowd, announced on a government blog the need to “modernize” the system used for disclosure avoidance by turning to “formal privacy” methods. Such an approach would allow the government to renew its guarantee of the confidentiality of data. The description of this innovation did not convey the trade-off that would be discussed later, a trade-off that underpinned the Federal Register notice, a trade-off that pitted accuracy against confidentiality, and then pitted both against the desire for conventional statistical tables with numbers that appeared to resemble counts. Unaware of the broader context, the solicitation for feedback confounded data users and community advocates. Which data mattered? All of it, they answered. They needed all of the data, and it had to be accurate. As the reason for this question became clearer, data users grew upset, sides formed, coalitions coalesced, a controversy bloomed.

Read the full essay here!