Data has the potential to significantly change society, Kennedy Institute of Ethics Director and Georgetown philosophy professor Maggie Little said during a panel discussion of the ethical use of information hosted in Healy Hall on Feb. 1.
The event, “A Conversation in Bioethics: Data Ethics,” was hosted by The Kennedy Institute of Ethics and featured four panelists.
Speakers included Rick Smolan, a New York Times best-selling author; Cathy O’Neil, author of The New York Times’ best seller “Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy”; Chuck Todd, NBC News political director and moderator of “Meet the Press”; and Mayra Buvinic, a member of the United Nations Foundation and senior fellow at Data2X, a collaborative technical and advocacy platform that specializes in gender data to make a practical difference in the lives of women and girls worldwide.
The discussion centered on the changing landscape of data collection and distribution, especially the ethics of sharing and receiving data.
The event aimed to spark conversation on the ethical use and distribution of data, according to the event’s website.
Little emphasized the changing landscape of data collection and the growing influence that data has on today’s world.
“From politics, to gender equality, to how data is helping and hurting our criminal justice system, you can do good policy based on your data,” Little said.
Smolan echoed Little’s sentiments regarding the growing influence of data, and said “big data” has the potential to affect people in both positive and negative ways.
“Every new technology can be used for good and evil,” Smolan said. “We can look at something now from a thousand different perspectives.”
O’Neil brought up the potential dangers that human-created algorithms can cause for consumers. An algorithm that uses past behaviors to predict future consumption depends on individuals and their biases, O’Neil said.
“An algorithm is the product of the human being that built it,” O’Neil said. “It is a lot about power, as well as math.”
O’Neil said she hopes to eliminate inherent biases from the programs and techniques used in the big data field.
“My goal in life is to get the intimidation factor out of this,” O’Neil said, referring to big data. “It’s an abuse of mathematical trust.”
Todd echoed the idea that algorithms have had an effect on past political events and campaigns.
“Campaigns use data — and almost data alone — to strategically decide not only what to talk about, but what to talk about and who to talk about and what to talk about with specific individuals,” Todd said.
Todd scrutinized the role of big data in politics today because of its profound effects on the way politicians have decided to run political campaigns.
“We’ve taken politics and created this precision mindset: You’re only looking for the vote of people you already think agree with you, and you only talk to the people who you think already agree with you,” Todd said. “In the era of big data, political campaigns have decided ‘I don’t need to persuade.’ Candidates think, ‘My votes are there, we just have to go find them. And I have all of this great big data to go find them.’”
Buvinic said her experience with inherent biases in data comes from working abroad in lower-income nations to monitor census data.
“Data portrays women as a lot more dependent and less productive than we really are,” Buvinic said. “When survey designers design questions based on traditional conceptions of what work men and women do, our data becomes biased.”
O’Neil said big data can have a positive impact on society, but it requires monitoring and scrutiny by both the consumers and the scientists.
“Big data can do great things,” O’Neil said. “I just don’t think we can assume it’s doing great things. We have to check.”