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Sunday, January 10, 2016

Beware the catalogue and the taxonomy?

Marginalization. Discrimination. Eugenics. In their paper titled "Big data problems we face today can be traced to the social ordering practices of the 19th century," Hamish Robertson and Joanne Travaglia of New South Wales University explore traditions of using data for social order, and compare them to modern data practices.

Are catalogues, taxonomies and other organizational/cognitive methods inextricably linked to power and control? Or are they inherently neutral, sense-making tools? The path to power is paved by intent and purpose - in particular statistical descriptive methods that, in crude form, define a 'normal' society, and deviations from that norm.

Robertson and Travaglia raise legitimate concerns, given the history and use of such tools. But rather than focusing on the tools and techniques, they could explore the importance of the accessibility of both data itself and tools/techniques to a much broader set of society.

Whether known as 'democratizing data' or 'occupation', the important question is how we foster and enable independent data analysis, reporting, and journalism. This freedom is precious, for it allows us to see different viewpoints and defend against narrow agendas. DataKind and Propublica are just a few of the examples of funded organizations that continue this hard and important work.

The critical and central topic for years to come should be whether laws, in conjunction with free enterprise, will be effective at governing data privacy, ownership and control. Can we be clever enough to protect the rights of those who spend capital to acquire data, while fostering free competition for that data? At what point do certain types of data or certain scales of data create unfair or even dangerous, limited power?

And, for organizations like DataKind and Propublica, how do we further develop their economic sustainability without ties or dependence on key sponsors who, inevitably, will have their own limited agendas?


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