Demand data transparency everywhere

Introducing yourData: An openDemocracy project to show your data to you when it is used

Matthew Linares
27 November 2019, 12.21pm
A still from In Limbo, a film about the global data explosion.
Antoine Viviani, 2015. All rights reserved.

By 2030, if we avert ecological collapse, the data society will be far more advanced than it is now. Your personal data, collected by so many devices and platforms over the decades, days, minutes and milliseconds, already gives an exceedingly fine-grained picture of you. In ten years, that picture will be richer than we can imagine.

Tech evangelists say we will live in smart cities and homes, surrounded by machines, miniature and large, that will drive and deliver and delight us. It’s a utopian vision that sits at the heart of industrial strategies across the world’s power centres.

In that future, personal data will continuously inform decisions made by computers as they speed around, serving us. Today’s tech giants beguile us with hyper-personalised playgrounds, endlessly tweaked to meet urges we never knew we had; in the coming age of the internet-of-things, data-driven desire satisfaction will ensconce us fully.

It could so easily be a dystopia instead, though. Data will be used to shape what information you see and what services you receive in ways that are not yet possible. As we slide further towards this state of affairs, we must ensure that citizens are data-fluent and tooled-up to deal with a world where their data permeates all.

Opaque data usage is out of control

Digital services - social media platforms, government portals and online stores, for instance - all leverage user data like never before. From basic personalisation such as product recommendations to complex predictions of our behaviour, data is at work everywhere we go.

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Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels - woman-standing-while-carrying-laptop-1181354.jpg
Online personalisation is where you see specific content based on your personal data. How bad can it be?

Yet these processes are opaque. The precise data that is used, which is mostly your data, and how it is used to decide what content you see, all gets hidden as websites strive to provide a frictionless experience. Behind the curtain, a murky industry powers the algorithms shaping our reality.

Visualisation shows deep inferences about people that most people will be unaware of.
Visualisation shows deep inferences about people that most people will be unaware of.

This leaves citizens ignorant about the systems that make their world tick. If we want genuine democracy and properly informed populations, we must create technologies that bring people closer to the data and the algorithms that rule them. Trust in online services is weaker when people do not know how they work.

openDemocracy’s remedy: transparency everywhere

openDemocracy is a non-profit publisher with a mission to improve public discourse through journalism and good media practice. That includes how our web properties communicate with and serve our readers.

As part of our efforts to make our website more relevant and useful, we will soon begin to introduce personalisation features. That will mean, for example, detecting where readers are located (with their IP address) and showcasing content we believe relevant to them.

In doing so, we want to take an ethics-by-design approach, building features that show user data exactly as and when it is used. If we use your data to show you a particular set of articles in a box on the page, then we will aim to show you what data was used to do so, right there in the same box. This form of transparency informs the reader of how and why content is served. This will form part of an open-source research and development project that we call yourData.

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In Limbo screengrab
yourData is openDemocracy’s project to bring more transparency to the web.

yourData is not just about making sure people are aware which elements of their data websites are using, it’s also about making algorithms more transparent. It’s about beginning to improve the fluency and understanding of ordinary people whose lives are increasingly organised by secretive decision-making systems.

A mockup of wnat yourData features might look like on openDemocracy.
A mockup of wnat yourData features might look like on openDemocracy.
Matthew Linares, openDemocracy

Whilst many major platforms are slowly integrating user data access points in cumbersome settings pages, very few sites offer direct access to data exactly where it is used. That context is necessary to give people a better idea of the inner workings of personalised systems.

As Marloes Nicholls of the Finance Innovation Lab explains: “Though the rise of data-driven services has potential to give people greater control, it could also increase inequalities of wealth and power. In finance, for example, machine learning and AI are increasingly being used to determine access to credit and insurance, but there are worrying signs – as with the Apple Card – that this is being done in ways that are sexist, racist, or reinforce other forms of discrimination. We need to make visible the invisible decision making structures that are shaping access to vital services like finance and media. yourData is so interesting because it has the potential to help openDemocracy readers understand why they are reading particular news stories, while also sparking wider questions about the use of data-driven technologies and raising expectations for how other services communicate about this.”

Facebook advert with the “Why am I seeing this?” user data features. Facebook provides one the most advanced, yet limited, examples of such a tool having come under extreme pressure to do so.
Facebook advert with the “Why am I seeing this?” user data features. Facebook provides one the most advanced, yet limited, examples of such a tool having come under extreme pressure to do so. | Facebook

Living by our values

We want to be a laboratory to research and test out features like this which make the web a better place. By demonstrating how the web can be better and building that into new standards, we can set precedents for more transparent design.

We want to work with others to help those standards become the default across the web.

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To affect the flow of data and power, media organisations need to design the digital landscapes that we depend on. Join us as we look to do just that at openDemocracy.

openDemocracy is not perfect in relation to data technology. We use Google Analytics and other data-hungry platforms whilst publishing searing critiques of these same systems.

As a small organisation, we make difficult decisions about how we can remain effective in a competitive environment whilst living within our means. However, we will always try to minimise our use of invasive web services.

We need civic leadership

Even if civil society makes political demands of the big platforms to give complete control of how data is used, we still need ethical design leaders in the civic space. Relying on corporate technologists to mend things delivers bad outcomes because they too often prioritise profit, not pro-social outcomes.

As Charlie Warzel writes in the New York Times “none of this invasive technology happens by accident. Our privacy crisis is a crisis of design… Protecting privacy is often about adding friction to the mechanisms that threaten it. But that’s antithetical to the ethos of Silicon Valley, where innovation is all about simplifying.”

Digital product design too often lacks the motivations to get this right. That’s why open-source projects, driven by non-corporate players, are critical to ensure incentives are properly aligned.

yourData is an effort to bring together partners, large and small, to develop transparency fit for democracy as we fast-forward into the data age. In order to design and spread technology with user needs at its core, we will need supporters to help us develop, showcase and lead this demonstration of how things should be done. That includes every reader and web user who agrees that we need this transparency, before the world becomes a tangle of data machines that nobody understands or controls.

If you are interested in supporting this project as a citizen, as a designer, as developer, as an organisation interested in integrating these features, as a funder, or anything else, please get in touch and follow our mailing list.

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