Proliferation in data and data-science fields has changed lives for the better, but it can also pose a threat to democracy and privacy. Here Rafael Goldzweig looks at two possible futures under data-driven governance and recommends tactics to make sure we can reap the rewards of big data without suffering the consequences.
Digitisation is changing the way we interact with many aspects of our lives. How should governments, citizens, and businesses capitalise on the best aspects of new technologies while avoiding their risks?
This and other questions were at the centre of the debate at the recent re:publica conference in Berlin. Over three days, participants discussed the ways technology interacts with social arenas ranging from media and politics to culture and entertainment. To quote American whistle-blower Chelsea Manning, the event’s keynote speaker, the fears about using algorithms and developing machine learning are not unfounded: “It is more than just hype. It’s dangerous.”
Here is how we can prepare for the challenges to come.
Two Possible Futures
Data is the commodity of this century and the way we use it will shape how we live our lives in the future. Politicians are slowly coming to understand the importance of mastering the use of data to address the challenges society faces. At the same time, tech companies are developing tools and services to understand the needs and interests of citizens in a more precise way than governments will ever be able to, with many of these products already being implemented in cooperation with governments around the world.
The increasing dependence on algorithms and machines in decision-making raises questions of legitimacy. Automating decisions based on big amounts of data makes it difficult to hold governments to account as algorithms get more sophisticated and people who designed the rationale behind them are less capable of understanding them. Assuming that automated data will be an inherent part of governments and their interactions with the society, two possible futures can be imagined.
On the positive spectrum, data can help optimise resources, increase transparency, foster learning and optimise individual choices. On the negative side, data can be used for social control, to reinforce biases, misinform, or make government actions less accountable.
Data usage has the potential to dramatically change life as we know it. The way we overcome the challenges and exploit the opportunities it brings will guide the future we will build. If basic standards of privacy and accountability are in place, data can help improve the relationship between governments and their citizens. However, governments alone cannot address these challenges only by using regulation: tech companies need to take action to build a healthier online environment as well.
How to Move Towards the Good Version of a Data-Driven Future
In order to explore the positive outcomes of data usage, governments, private companies, and civil society need to think outside of the box, not only offering regulation as a solution, but a multi-stakeholder approach to this question.
With significant job cuts expected in the wake of automation, governments need to think about offering a mix of training and social security policies to facilitate the transition of workers in the labour market in the short run. In the long term, educational systems and redistributive policies need to align with the effects of these trends, if we want to avoid profits from technological development going only to those at the top.
But government does have an important role to play. Data protection laws should dictate the rules of what can and what cannot be done. Without comprehensive protection of citizens’ personal data and ways to verify and make those who develop machine learning applications accountable, it will be difficult to ensure that we explore the full potential of innovation without avoiding its risks.
If a democratic government neglects its duty to regulate data usage, it may find its power short-lived. The idea of a machine automating decisions that should be in the hands of public authorities challenges the social contract that exists between voters and elected officials. This issue should be on the public agenda if politicians want to avoid criticism about the lack of transparency and accountability that automation may bring. Governments should foster open-data and open-government initiatives in order to allow civil society to hold authorities accountable for their actions.
Both futures are possible, and we will likely live a world in which both of them coexist. The way we guide the use of technology in government and in civil society will determine whether we can take advantage of its benefits or live in fear of its consequences. We should not blame technology, but rather make it work for all of us.
Rafael Goldzweig is a Dahrendorf Research Associate based at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.
Photo by Pete Birkinshaw via Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)