Ethics by Design

My current thinking about what to bring to my open data and data governance work, as well as to technology development, especially in the context of networked agency, can be summarised under the moniker ‘ethics by design’. In a practical sense this means setting non-functional requirements at the start of a design or development process, or when tweaking or altering existing systems and processes. Non-functional requirements that reflect the values you want to safeguard or ensure, or potential negative consequences you want to mitigate. Privacy, power asymmetries, individual autonomy, equality, and democratic control are examples of this.

Today I attended the ‘Big Data Festival’ in The Hague, organised by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management. Here several government organisations presented themselves and the work they do using data as an intensive resource. Stuff that speaks to the technologist in me. In parallel there were various presentations and workshops, and there I was most interested in what was said about ethical issues around data.

Author and interviewer Bas Heijne set the scene at the start by pointing to the contrast between the technology optimism concerning digitisation of years back and the more dystopian discussion (triggered by things like the Cambridge Analytica scandal and cyberwars), and sought the balance in the middle. I think that contrast is largely due to the difference in assumptions underneath the utopian and dystopian views. The techno-optimist perspective, at least in the webscene I frequented in the late 90’s and early 00’s assumed the tools would be in the hands of individuals, who would independently weave the world wide web, smart at the edges and dumb at the center. The dystopian views, including those of early criticaster like Aron Lanier, assumed, and were proven at least partly right, a centralisation into walled gardens where individuals are mere passive users or an object, and no longer a subject with autonomy. This introduces wildly different development paths concerning power distribution, equality and agency.

In the afternoon a session with professor Jeroen van den Hoven, of Delft University, focused on making the ethical challenges more tangible as well as pointed to the beginnings of practical ways to address them. It was the second time I heard him present in a month. A few weeks ago I attended an Ethics and Internet of Things workshop at University of Twente, organised by UNESCO World Commission on the Ethics of Science and Technology (COMEST). There he gave a very worthwile presentation as well.


Van den Hoven “if we don’t design for our values…”

What I call ethics by design, a term I first heard from prof Valerie Frissen, Van den Hoven calls value sensitive design. That term sounds more pragmatic but I feel conveys the point less strongly. This time he also incorporated the geopolitical aspects of data governance, which echoed what Rob van Kranenburg (IoT Council, Next Generation Internet) presented at that workshop last month (and which I really should write down separately). It was good to hear it reinforced for today’s audience of mainly civil servants, as currently there is a certain level of naivety involved in how (mainly local governments) collaborate with commercial partners around data collection and e.g. sensors in the public space.

(Malfunctioning) billboard at Utrecht Central Station a few days ago, with not thought through camera in a public space (to measure engagement with adverts). Civic resistance taped over the camera.

Value sensitive design, said Van den Hoven, should seek to combine the power of technology with the ethical values, into services and products. Instead of treating it as a dilemma with an either/or choice, which is the usual way it is framed: Social networking OR privacy, security OR privacy, surveillance capitalism OR personal autonomy, smart cities OR human messiness and serendipity. In value sensitive design it is about ensuring the individual is still a subject in the philosophical sense, and not merely the object on which data based services feed. By addressing both values and technological benefits as the same design challenge (security AND privacy, etc.), one creates a path for responsible innovation.

The audience saw both responsibilities for individual citizens as well as governments in building that path, and none thought turning one’s back on technology to fictitious simpler times would work, although some were doubtful if there was still room to stem the tide.

Reinventing Distributed Conversations

Peter Rukavina picks up on my recent blogging about blogging, and my looking back on some of the things I wrote 10 to 15 years ago about it (before the whole commercial web started treating social interaction as a adverts targeting vehicle).

In his blogpost in response he talks about putting back the inter in internet, inter as the between, and as exchanges.

… all the ideas and tools and debates and challenges we hashed out 20 years ago on this front are as relevant today as they were then; indeed they are more vital now that we’ve seen what the alternatives are.

And he asks “how can we continue to evolve it“?

That indeed is an important question, and one that is being asked in multiple corners. By those who were isolated from the web for years and then shocked by what they found upon their return. But also by others, repeatedly, such as Anil Dash and Mike Loukides of O’Reilly Media, when they talk about rebuilding or retaking the web.

Part of it is getting back to seeing blogging as conversations, conversations that are distributed across your and my blogs. This is what made my early blog bloom into a full-blown professional community and network for me. That relationships emerge out of content sharing, which then become more important and more persistent than the content, was an important driver for me to keep blogging after I started. These distributed conversations we had back then and the resulting community forming were even a key building block of my friend Lilia’s PhD a decade ago.

So I’m pleased that Peter responds to my blogging with a blogpost, creating a distributed conversation again, and like him I wonder what we can do to augment it. Things we had ideas about in the 00’s but which then weren’t possible, and maybe now are. Can we make our blogs smarter, in ways that makes the connections that get woven more tangible, discoverable and followable, so that it can become an enriching and integral part of our interaction?

From Semi Freddo to Full Cold Turkey with FB

I’ve disengaged from Facebook (FB) last October, mostly because I wanted to create more space for paying attention, and for active, not merely responsive, reflection and writing, and realised that the balance between the beneficial and destructive aspects of FB had tilted too much to the destructive side.

My intention was to keep my FB account, as it serves as a primary channel to some professional contacts and groups. Also FB Messenger is the primary channel for some. However I wanted to get rid of my FB history, all the likes, birthday wishes etc. Deleting material is possible but the implementation of it is completely impractical: every element needs to be deleted separately. Every like needs to be unliked, every comment deleted, every posting on your own wall or someone else’s wall not just deleted but also the deletion confirmed as well. There’s no bulk deletion option. I tried to use a Chrome plugin that promised to go through the activity log and ‘click’ all those separate delete buttons, but it didn’t work. The result is that deleting your data from Facebook means deleting every single thing you ever wrote or clicked. Which can easily take 30 to 45 mins to just do for a single month worth of likes and comments. Now aggregate that over the number of years you actively used FB (about 5 years in my case, after 7 years of passive usage).

The only viable path to delete your FB data therefore is currently to delete the account entirely. I wonder if it will be different after May, when the GDPR is fully enforced.

Not that deletion of your account is easy either. You don’t have full control over deletion. The link to do so is not available in your settings interface, but only through the help pages, and it is presented as submitting a request. After you confirm deletion, you receive an e-mail that deletion of your data will commence after 14 days. Logging back in in that period stops the clock. I suspect this will no longer be enough when the GDPR enters into force, but it is what it currently is.

Being away from FB for a longer time, with the account deactivated, had the effect that when I did log back in (to attempt to delete more of my FB history), the FB timeline felt very bland. Much like how watching tv was once not to be missed, and then it wasn’t missed at all. This made me realise that saying FB was the primary channel for some contacts which I wouldn’t want to throw away, might actually be a cop-out, the last stand of FOMO. So FB, by making it hard to delete data while keeping the account, made it easy to decide to delete my account altogether.

Once the data has been deleted (which can take up to 90 days according to FB after the 14 day grace period), I might create a new account, with which to pursue the benefits of FB, but avoid the destructive side and with 12 years of Facebook history wiped. Be seeing you!


FB’s mail confirming they’ll delete my account by the end of April.

Algorithms That Work For Me, Not Commodotise Me

Stephanie Booth, a long time blogging connection, has been writing about reducing her Facebook usage and increasing her blogging. She says at one point

As the current “delete Facebook” wave hits, I wonder if there will be any kind of rolling back, at any time, to a less algorithmic way to access information, and people. Algorithms came to help us deal with scale. I’ve long said that the advantage of communication and connection in the digital world is scale. But how much is too much?

I very much still believe there’s no such thing as information overload, and fully agree with Stephanie that the possible scale of networks and connections is one of the key affordances of our digital world. My rss-based filtering, as described in 2005, worked better when dealing with more information, than with less. Our information strategies need to reflect and be part of the underlying complexity of our lives.

Algorithms can help us with that scale, just not the algorithms that FB uses around us. For algorithms to help, like any tool, they need to be ‘smaller’ than us, as I wrote in my networked agency manifesto. We need to be able to control its settings, tinker with it, deploy it and stop it as we see fit. The current application of algorithms, as they usually need lots of data to perform, sort of demands a centralised platform like FB to work. The algorithms that really will be helping us scale will be the ones we can use for our own particular scaling needs. For that the creation, maintenance and usage of algorithms needs to have a much lower threshold than now. I placed it in my ‘agency map‘ because of it.

Going back to a less algorithmic way of dealing with information isn’t an option, nor something to desire I think. But we do need algorithms that really serve us, perform to our information needs. We need less algorithms that purport to aid us in dealing with the daily river of newsy stuff, but really commodotise us at the back-end.

Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway- Hey, I Could Help Do That!

In a case of synchronicity I’ve read Cory Doctorow’s novel Walkaway when I was ill recently, just as Bryan Alexander scheduled it for his near future science fiction reading group. I loved reading the book, and in contrast to some other works of Doctorow the storyline kept working for me until the end.

Bryan amazingly has managed to get Doctorow to participate in a webcast as part of the Future Trends in learning series Bryan hosts. The session is planned for May 16th, and I marked my calendar for it.

In the comments Vanessa Vaile shares two worthwile links. One is an interesting recording from May last year at the New York public library in which Doctorow and Edward Snowden discuss some of the elements and underlying topics and dynamics of the Walkaway novel.

The other is a review in TOR.com, that resonates a lot with me. The reviewer writes how, in contrast with lots of other science fiction that takes one large idea or large change and extrapolates on that, Doctorow takes a number of smaller ideas and smaller changes, and then works out how those might interplay and weave new complexities, where the impact on “manufacturing, politics, the economy, wealth disparity, diversity, privilege, partying, music, sex, beer, drugs, information security, tech bubbles, law, and law enforcement” is all presented in one go.

It seems futuristic, until you realize that all of these things exist today.
….. most of it could start right now, if it’s the world we choose to create.

By not having any one idea jump too far from reality, Walkaway demonstrates how close we are, right now, to enormous promise and imminent peril.

That is precisely the effect reading Walkaway had on me, leading me to think how I could contribute to bringing some of the described effects about. And how some of those things I was/am already trying to create as part of my own work flow and information processes.

Neighbourhood Solar in Vathorst in Data

At the edge of our neighbourhood, on a section of grassland, there are plans to create a solar farm. This is a temporary set-up as the land will eventually be used to build houses. Those living in the houses overlooking those fields started a petition as they fear it diminishes their view. There’s a whiff of nimby here, but it’s also justified resistance as it flies in the face of an earlier two year long participatory project by the city to determine with those who live here how to use those fields.

The petition I think didn’t gather a lot of signatures (just over 1100 now). I somewhat tongue in cheek asked the initiators online if there was also a petition I could sign in favour of the solar fields. The Netherlands after all is running far behind its own goals concerning renewables so I feel action on a wider scale is needed.

This led to forming a small group of people looking into what can be done towards more solar using existing roofs in our neighbourhood. A constructive outcome I think, even if I have little real time to contribute. In conversation with the group I offered to look into what data might be helpful, to both determine the actual potential of solar energy in our location (how much irradience hits the surface here, and what yield does that make possible), and the latent potential (based on the current energy usage at household level in our part of town.

Data on irradience is available. As is household electricity usage on postcode level, which means more or less to block level. What I haven’t really looked at if there is open data concerning roof space. The base register for buildings and addresses contains the shapes of buildings for every building in the Netherlands, but that is only in 2D, so it doesn’t provide the shape of non-flat roofs. Getting the roof shapes would require combining the BAG with AHN, the lidar scan of the Netherlands that contains all heights (trees, buildings and whatnot). The AHN however is created as snapshots. Our area is actively being developed, and houses are continuously being added. The latest AHN scan of our area was in 2010, so is heavily outdated. Luckily the new AHN3 (the 3rd AHN) scans for this region are scheduled for this year, and will be made available as open data. So at least we’ll have recent data to work with.

I intend to play around with this data to see if something can be said about potential and latent demand for solar energy in our area.

On Attention

“The medium was no longer the message, it was just an asshole.
I want my attention back.

Attention is a muscle. It must be exercised.
We deserve our attention.”

Craig Mod on attention in January 2017. In his case he got his attention back by disconnecting, which for all intents and purposes isn’t a viable option. Completely disconnecting in our networked societies is just a reactionary exercise in privilege. But it does sum up my current sentiment, e.g. concerning Facebook, quite nicely.

Revisiting the Personal Presence Portal

With my increased blogging in the past 6-7 months, I’ve been thinking again about the role this blog is serving and has served since 2002.

A long time ago, in the spring of 2004, when the likes of Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist, I wrote about that richer representation as ‘a personal presence portal‘ and I came across that posting again in the past days.

In recent weeks I’ve added some functionality (a short posting stream, a wiki-section, and a tweet like micro-posting stream) which is an expression of both my more intensive usage of my own blog, as well as removing myself from social media silo’s such as Facebook. These additions were all rather spontaneous, but together constitute a wish to have this blog be a richer public representation of me and my activities, a richer online presence.

In that old posting from 2004 I mention several dimensions of presence, as formulated in an article by Matthew Lombard and Theresa Ditton from Temple University. (The link to the article no longer works, so can’t reference it here.)

  • Presence as Social Richness
  • Presence as Realism
  • Presence as Transportation
  • Presence as Immersion
  • Presence as Social Actor within Medium
  • Presence as Medium as Social Actor

I find these six are still interesting angles to look at the role of this blog as a space, as an entry point, place of interaction, as repository and more.

Adding a Wiki-like Section

I added a page-based section to this blog, to serve as a wiki-like extension. Where blogs are a stream of content, I find I have need of a more static part of the site, with content that can serve as reference, as a jump-off page to blog content, or to document things.

In the 00’s I used to have a wiki living alongside this blog, and think of ways of connecting my blog to a wiki (in 2004 I wrote a WordPress and a Movable Type plugin to let blogposts and wiki-pages synchronise). The wiki I ran was wikkawiki, which based on functionality would still be my goto choice for an open source self hosted wiki.
The issue with running a wiki exposed to the public was that it attracted loads of spam attacks, something that in practice never was outweighed by the use bona fide visitors made of the wiki to alter or add content.

In short to add wiki-style functionality to my blog, the only functionality that is really needed is that 1) I myself have a edit button on static items, 2) the ability to categorise and tag those items, and 3) keep those items outside of the blog posting stream on the front page, and outside of the RSS feed. WordPress pages fit that description, when I’m logged in, and after adding a plugin to allow categories and tags on pages. So a page based section it is, or rather, will be over time.

Appear.in, a Skype alternative

The acquisition by Microsoft of Skype hasn’t worked out well for the product itself, judging by the level of sighs and complaints I hear whenever Skype is mentioned. So I was glad when longtime blogging connection Phil Wolff pointed me to Appear.in as an alternative. He said he’d been using it for a year or so, as an alternative to Skype.

Appear.in seems very easy to use, and no account is needed. Simply create a sharable link, and send the link to your conversation partners yourself, and you’re all set to talk with up to 4 people. The paid version allows up to 12 people in one call. I intend to use this more from now on.

Appear.in is a Norwegian company started in 2013 as an intern project at Telenor, which is still a minority shareholder, according to Techcrunch’s Crunchbase.