Beki Grinter

Archive for the ‘empirical’ Category

The Right to be Forgotten and the Right to be Equal

In computer science, empirical, European Union, social media on July 16, 2014 at 4:48 am

I’ve said this before, the Internet can be a mean misogynistic place. Could the Right to be Forgotten help with this?

The Right to be Forgotten is an EU ruling that gives people the means to ask search engine companies to remove data from their searches if it is irrelevant. Its sparked a lot of controversy as well as questions.

The controversy could be characterized as pitting freedom of expression and information against individual privacy rights. Additionally, people have argued that it creates an unfair burden on intermediaries such as Google.

While I am open to these arguments, I find myself thinking about how freedom of expression and misogyny interact. Some of the things that are written about women on the Internet are vile, abusive, full of bile and hatred. Freedom of expression has always had limitations: libel (making false and damaging statements) and obscenity. Freedom of expression on the Internet seems never to have had these limitations, and so obscene libelous statements directed at women exist in perpetuity on the Internet. Perhaps some might argue that its the responsibility of the person they are targetted at to take it up through the courts. But how, when the authors of these remarks are hidden. Which makes me think there is a role for corporations. Or at least a responsibility.

Some advocates for the right to be forgotten have argued that it reflects a social value of forgiveness. We all have the right to make mistakes and then over time have those mistakes disappear into a forgotten history. I agree.

But what I am asking and suggesting here is that the Right to be Forgotten maybe a means to finally have an Internet that is fair to all. For a long time visions of the Internet have championed it as a platform welcoming anyone and everyone. The right to be forgotten may have a role in actually ensuring that it welcomes minorities by proving for once and for all that it will not tolerate discrimination.


538, the World Cup, and Facebook: Telling Stories about Data

In computer science, discipline, empirical, research, social media on July 15, 2014 at 6:49 am

As many of you already know, I’ve been following the World Cup. My team, Germany, won. Watching the World Cup has always involved reading news reports and commentary about the matches. This year I decided to include 538 in my reading.

538 is Nate Silver’s website. Nate Silver became famous predicting US elections. He is a master of analyzing big data to make predictions. It works well for elections. But it doesn’t work so well for the World Cup, at least not for me. First, the site predicted Brazil to win for a long time.

But it’s not just that 538 did not accurately predict the winners. I think that 538 misses the point of a World Cup. Crunching data about the teams doesn’t tell the whole story. And the World Cup is stories. Many stories. As a fan you learn the stories of your team and its history. You might start with world history—this is very salient as a Germany fan. England versus Argentina similarly (1984). It also involves stories about the teams previous encounters. Germany versus Argentina has happened before, even in Finals. And those stories are recounted, and reflected on, in the build up to a game. You might tell stories about strategy. Certainly the Germans have been telling those, about a decade long commitment to raising German players. How you structure a league to encourage more domestic players that can also play for the national side. How you balance the demands of a national league and a national team.

In a nutshell, context matters. These stories of world politics, former World Cups, and the arc of time turn statistics about the players into something richer. 538 tells none of those stories. And I suppose that’s exactly what it wants to be, a “science” of the World Cup. But my World Cup isn’t statistics, it’s larger, more discursive and has a multi-decade narrative arc.

Reflecting on this caused me to revisit the Facebook study. Yes, that Facebook study. The study reported data. But it was data about people. However, at the same time I think some of the response could be interpreted as people feeling that there was more to the story than just statistical reporting of the outcomes. Is it a similar type of human-dimension, an infusion of humanity? This is the question I’ve kept wondering since reflecting on the problems of both of these data-driven reports. 538 reduces football to data. In so doing it loses the human dimension. The Facebook study started as data and the public raised human concerns and considerations. If I have a take away it is that fields like social computing, or any data science of humans, need to seriously pay attention to the stories that we tell about people. How we frame or potentially reduce people is something that the public will care about, for it is their humanity, their stories that we seek to tell.

That Facebook Study

In academia, computer science, discipline, empirical, European Union, research, social media on July 8, 2014 at 8:07 am

Following Michael Bernstein’s suggestion that Social Computing researchers join the conversation.

Facebook and colleagues at Cornell and the University of California, San Francisco published a study in which it was revealed that ~600,000 people had their Newsfeed curated to see either positive or negative posts. The goal was to see how seeing happy or sad posts influenced the users. Unless you’ve been without Internet connectivity you likely have heard about the uproar its generated.

Much has been said, Michael links to a list and some more essays that he’s found. Some people have expressed concerns about the role that corporations play in shaping our views of the world (via their online curation of it). Of course they do that everyday, but this study focused attention on that curation process by telling us, at least for a week how it was done for the subjects of the study. Others have expressed concern about the ethics of this study.

What do I think?

I’ve been dwelling on the ethical concerns. It helps that I’m teaching a course on Ethics and Computing. And that I’m doing it in Oxford, England. So I’m going to start from here.

First, this study has caused me to reflect on the peculiar situation that exists in the United States with regards to ethical review of science, and the lack of protection for individuals that participate in it.

In the United States, only institutions that take Federal Government research dollars are required to have Institutional Review Boards (IRBs). The purpose of an IRB is to review any study involving human subjects to ensure that it meets certain ethical standards. The IRB process has its origin in the appalling abuses conducted in the name of science like the Tuskegee Experiment. Facebook does not take Federal research money, and is therefore not required to have an IRB. The institutions by which research gets published are also not required to perform ethical reviews of work that they receive.

I find myself asking whether individuals who participate in a research study, irrespective of who funds that work, have the right to be protected? Currently there’s an inconsistency, in some research the answer is yes, and in others it is no. It seems very peculiar to me that who funds the work determines whether the research is subject to ethical review and whether the people who participate have protection.

Second, most of the responses I’ve read have been framed in American terms. But social computing, including this study, aspires to be a global science. What I mean is that nowhere did I read that these results only apply to a particular group of people from a particular place. And with the implication of being global comes a deeper and broader responsibility: to respect the values of the citizens that it touches in its research.

The focus on the IRB is uniquely American. Meanwhile I am in Europe. I’ve been learning more about European privacy laws, and my understanding is that they provide a broader protection for individuals (for example, not distinguishing based on who pays for the research), and also place a greater burden on those who collect data about people to inform them, and to explicitly seek consent in many cases. I interpret these laws as reflecting the values that the 505 million European Union citizens have about their rights.

I’ve not been able to tell whether European citizens were a part of the 600,000 people in the study. The PNAS report said that it was focused on English speakers, which perhaps explains why the UK was the first country to launch an inquiry. If Europeans citizens were involved we might get more insight into how the EU and its member nations view ethical conduct in research. If they were not, there is still some possibility that we will learn more about what the EU means when it asks “data controllers” (i.e. those collecting, holding, and manipulating data about individuals) to be transparent in their processes.

I’ve read a number of pieces that express concern about what it means to ask people to consent to a research study. Will we lose enough people that we can’t study network effects? How do we embed it into systems? These are really good questions. But, at the same time I don’t think we can or should ignore citizen’s rights and this will mean being knowledgable about systems that do not just begin and end with the IRB. Its not just because its the law, but because without it I think we demonstrate a lack of respect for other’s values. And I often think that’s quite the point of an ethical review, to get beyond our own perspective and think about those we are studying.

Photocopier: Physical, Digital, Organizational and a Craft too!

In academia, computer science, discipline, empirical on June 13, 2013 at 12:55 pm

A couple of days ago I finally learnt the username/password combination and the network name for the third floor mopier (scanner, photocopier, printer). Perhaps its because I worked at Xerox for some years, but it always frustrates me when there’s a device I can’t print or photocopy on. This one took me some time to figure out how to operate for a variety of reasons.

I stood next to it several times. Nothing about its physical self revealed its digital self to me. Sometimes you can get a printer to print out its network configuration. But this machine did not allow you to touch any buttons without being logged in first. And so standing there next to it in the physical world changed nothing about my ability to print to it in the digital world. I was having the reverse experience of the one in which your computer “discovers” a printer but you can’t discover it in the physical world (vague embarrassment recalled as I spent some time printing to a machine which I thought was just outside my office (it said Gutenberg on the front of the machine that I read as the network name of the machine, but that’s actually the name of a machine located in a different building on campus. Luckily I printed out an email, so the person receiving the print out was able to email me to let me know that I was mistaken about the name of that machine).

The key to discovering its online name was to find out what username/password combination worked. Who should I ask? The printer’s physical existence is in a space that I don’t understand organizationally. Does it belong to the School of Interactive Computing? Does it belong to the School of Language, Media and Culture? Does it belong to IMTC? Not clear to me because the physical location (which for many other parts of the third floor I can easily read and interpret) was ambiguous. I wondered who to ask.

Quite by chance someone tells me what the username/password combination is, and I log on to the photocopier. I have some photocopying to do. I first learnt to photocopy in graduate school. Need several chapters of a book? No Google search facility back then (WAIS and Gopher if I recall correctly) that would likely yield a probably illegal copy of what you were looking for. No, it was off to the library and then over to the photocopy room. It was a time when people would say that part of learning to be a graduate student was learning how to photocopy, smiling, but acknowledging a truth about the importance of being able to master that skill.

The Department of Information and Computer Science at the University of California, Irvine had a dedicated staff member in the photocopy room. He took care of the several machines that were in the room (no doubt did other things, but this was the primary place I encountered him). ICS had a system of user names and passwords associated with individuals and caps. So the book chapter copying was always a dilemma of balancing the desire to have the reference material against the annual cap. That was until I got the username and password combination for a project that was very rich. DARPA funding meant that the project’s cap was infinite. Now, all that stood between me and the book was the ability to photocopy it. I taught myself a variety of useful skills, to efficiently double-sided, two pages on each side, shrink to fit, copying. I prefer short edge binding over long edge. After a while I was able to size up a book and pretty much get the exact amount of shrinkage right first time.

Having mastered the art of photocopying, ICS provided further opportunities. For a while I was spiral binding most of my photocopies using the machine that cuts rectangular holes down one side of the photocopy stack and the other machine that inserts the spiral binding. I put front and back covers on some of my efforts. I still have one of those to this day, the photocopied proceedings of the first conference on Software Engineering held in Garmisch. And then there was the experiment with the glued binding. There were binders that had glue on the inside of the spine and a machine that would heat it up, you would then stick the paper to be bound in, let the glue run over them and then take the entire thing out of the machine. The trick with this machine was in heating but not overheating the glue. And I have to admit the machine made me nervous, I worried about the potential for fire. I’m actually not sure whether that was a valid concern, but I worried about it and consequently I decided to return to spiral binding even though glue bound photocopies made for a flush on shelf filing.

Of course, I couldn’t experiment while the staff member was there. I was not using my correct code. Perhaps I was photocopying more than I should. I had no idea whether graduate students were “allowed” to use these other machines. So most of these skills were developed in the small hours of the night. Walking home with my latest creation afterwards, I primarily feared the roving packs of raccoons that wandered around campus being generally annoyed by the presence of humans out during the time in which they occupied campus. Sometimes I hid from them as to not invoke their ire. After all I had something to read in hand.

I’m scanning a book chapter on the third floor mopier. I’m going to send it to myself so that I can read it on my iPad. I like reading academic papers and books on my iPad. I decide to add my email address to the list of frequently used emails so that I don’t have to type it all in each time I do this. I look through the list of emails already there, and now I’m even more curious about the organizational history of the machine. There are various addresses in there. Some are graduate students who have since graduated. I’m surprised to read that this machine has been in existence on the third floor even, for longer than I think. But there are some addresses for people who’ve never worked proximate to this machine while it’s been in this location. I wonder why they are there. I wonder whether the machine lived somewhere else in a former life, proximate to those users.  Ive never really thought about reading an organizational history from a photocopier, but I see at least two departmental identities as well as some longevity of history represented in the collections of emails that make up the frequent users of the machine.

The TSRB 3rd floor photocopier is now something I can print too. But it’s given me far more than that, an opportunity to reflect on how this machine lives in the physical and digital worlds, a recollection back to my learning how to photocopy, and about the institutional elements of the machine.

MOOC Participation: Diversity and Assumptions of Development

In computer science, discipline, empirical, research, social media on February 12, 2013 at 11:30 am

Continuing my series of posts about MOOCs. Today’s is about a type of open/development rhetoric I keep hearing associated with MOOCs. It’s well meant I am quite sure, but I’ve heard the following sentiment: MOOCs will allow anyone from any continent to access content. And that in turn leads to increased education, skills for all.

I have a number of problems with this argument.

Starting with the obvious, this sentiment makes important assumptions about access. That access to the Internet and its content is uniform across the world. But it’s not. The Internet is a very different experience if you have a smartphone as your only means of access, versus if you have a laptop. Behind the hardware, there are questions of corporate policies and pricing mechanisms that influence access. Bandwidth caps, bandwidth pricing can influence how people use their phones, and in many parts of the world also how they use the wired network.

Behind these crucial practical questions of access lurk other assumptions, which warrant questioning. Is the content we create relevant or useful for everyone? What assumptions do the producers of content make about, say, what has been previously taught? What assumptions are made about the types of hardware and software the students have access too? And most critically, what assumptions get made about why the person is taking the course and whether that content will ultimately be most useful?

Although its not used too much, I have heard the word “Africa” used to describe diversity. I do think its well meant but it has the danger to collapse all of these questions into a stereotype of a person. Africa is not a person, nor is it a country, it’s a continent of great diversity in all senses. A person from Africa may well contribute to diversity in a MOOC setting, but so might a person from America.

Like others, I see this as being part of understanding the participation divide that shapes the Internet today. Some of that divide is the question of access, its costs, modalities, and so forth. But that’s not all that shapes the participation divide. When we overly simplify an entire continent we close down the question of what shapes participation in very problematic ways. If we are really committed to understanding how online education might help more people learn, the participation divide is precisely the question we ought to open up, to really take account of the highly diverse population of people that have some reach to the Internet. Because it’s only when we actually take diversity seriously that we have any shot at getting to something better than more education for the already well educated.

Knitting Needles dont Knit, People Do

In empirical, research on December 21, 2012 at 2:22 pm

I keep hearing this line about guns. Guns don’t kill people, people do. So I thought it would be interesting to explore the argument via knitting needles.

I knit, I create knitted artifacts. But, the knitting needles I use are pretty crucial to the experience. It’s not impossible to knit without knitting needles, I’ve tried with chopsticks, it’s possible but not as satisfying. You can also use the knitting needles for other, non-knitting things, I’ve used mine to tie my hair up. But they are better for knitting than as hair decorations.

Knitting needles shape the experience by being very intentionally designed for that experience (e.g., the different thicknesses suitable for different thicknesses of yarn, circular for working knitted objects in a round, double-pointed for socks, as well as the traditional straight needles). Knitting needles are designed to help people who knit knit. Without them people could knit, but the experience of knitting with knitting needles is the most common one and it’s not surprising, they were designed for it.

Beyond the design/function argument there is something else about knitting needles and knitting. When I have knitting needles in my hands, I am visibly a knitter. I’ve written before about the types of conversation that that starts up, about how to knit, what I am knitting, recollections of family members who knitted. It makes me a part of a world in which I am seen as a knitter, and in which others are a canvas of potential knitters or people who are curious. Just the other day I was knitting at my Godson’s school play, and so was the person sat next to me. Not only did we have conversations about our favourite local yarn stores, but we also received joking commentary from others about “keeping the knitters together.” I still don’t know her name, although I do know the name of her granddaughter who was also in the play (and about the same age as the children in the shooting that has triggered this reflections on knitting). Sometimes the associations are less amusing, I fly with knitting needles, its allowed, but it doesn’t mean that others on the plane don’t look at me, and the needles as if they are weapons and I am potentially a risk. Context matters, its uncomfortable for me to be seen as a terrorist risk when I knit on a plane, but it’s a space where contexts transform the meaning of the technology.

When I knit the technology that helps me do that is knitting needles. It changes what I can do, as well as supporting me in that, but it also changes my relationship to the world itself. I become associated with my needles. So, I don’t think you can separate guns from people, because you can’t separate the needles from the knitting.

The Autobiographical Turn

In discipline, empirical, HCI, research on August 2, 2012 at 10:46 am

There has been a turn towards the autobiographical in some ethnographic research. The idea is that by sharing one’s autobiography—the relevant parts—that it will make it easier for the reader to understand the analysis process. Understand where, you, the analytic instrument starts.

When I first learnt about this I thought that that was very valuable. I thought that it would be useful to understand something about where the author stands with respect to the material. I also knew from experience in studying religion that people made various assumptions about my beliefs (ranging from atheism to fundamentalism). Realizing how any position along that continuum could be applied to my motives for the research made me think that putting something clearly out there was potentially very useful.

But lately I’ve been thinking that there is a problem. Putting something about yourself into a research publication puts it into the professional public forum. Most of the time we spend in professional forums is very carefully managed to create a good impression. But is that what we bring to analysis? If we bring parts of ourselves to analysis, is it more/as likely to be the far more complex experiences of our lives? Do the experiences that shape us mostly deeply come from the types of things that are easy to share or are far more complex and not something that we would choose to put into the professional domain? More  cynically, I began to wonder whether sometimes the autobiographic turn was being used in pursuit of professionalism (but that was me at my most cynical).

Back to the question of my religion. I have wrestled with writing about my religious position, and in the end I find that I am relatively uncomfortable in writing about it autobiographically because to make it useful in any meaningful way I would have to reveal far more and discuss a whole set of choices and experiences that I have little desire to share with the HCI research community. Here’s my religious position, I have no strong position on the question of religion. Of course that’s very convenient because it fits nicely into a professional position—the type of distance is in line with ideas about how empirical science is conducted). Also in the absence of knowing far more, doesn’t seem to be helpful. It’s a nice way (of course) of saying “its complicated.”

And now when I read these autobiographical turns I find myself asking two questions: how is what you are telling me tied to the professional image that you are trying to project, and what is being omitted as a consequence.

How to Outwit Your Thermostat and Other Tales from the Future

In empirical, HCI, research on July 31, 2012 at 8:33 am

Having lived with an Internet scale that will tweet my weight if I want (what planet did the designers inhabit before they moved to Earth) and mastered the art of not allowing it to do so, we are now experimenting with “smart thermostats”, i.e. the products from Nest. Let me say from the outset that I’m very excited about these. They look beautiful. Gone is the old white thermostat with its “I’m an 80’s calculator, or perhaps even a wrist watch” interface. This has a turning dial, it’s smooth, it glows blue when cooling and red when heating. It also tracks our energy usage, so I can see how many hours a day we are cooling our house. Also because its connected to the Internet it knows how hot it is in Atlanta and uses that to infer whether we’ve possibly used more energy to cool today because the weather has been warmer.

So that’s all working very well.

What has been more interesting is that the Nest is trying to generate an automatic schedule for us. What I mean is that based on the way we set it when we am here, the Nest has been building up a data corpus that it’s now using to control the settings in the house, including settings for when it thinks we are away. You can turn this feature off, but we thought it would be interesting to experiment with it.

This works well when we are on a regular schedule, but the summer for academics is not always routine. So a new feature for me is when I am home trying to pretend, at least to my thermostats, that I am still away. One way they detect that I am home is through movement, so I have found myself in the bizarre situation of attempting to sneak past my thermostat in order to get somewhere without it knowing. I’ve been mostly successful.

I also find myself thinking “what are my thermostats doing?” I hope that this will wear off with time, but while they are still learning I wonder what they are getting up to at home while I am away. Fortunately Nest has an account, you can log on, download the iPhone/iPad apps and while away those boring moments in meetings by checking in on your thermostats. I’ve had to turn mine up and down several times, especially in the early phases when they didn’t understand my schedule. I have a thought for a really good rouse which is to set the temperature on someone while they are at home. Do I think that the Home Office is set too low by its current occupant, now I am empowered to change it on them. Bhwaa haa haa…

I’m pretty happy with the Nests, I’m enjoying learning more about my energy usage (although since I can’t compare it with, say my neighbors, I’m not sure whether I’m doing better or worse than others). But, I am reminded about how with each innovation in home automation, so I’m adding another little to-do into my life. So, I’m balancing its sensible aspects and adapting some of my behaviours (like sneaking about my house) in order for it to make sense of the routines I want it to know about, not the ones I don’t.

Doing Ethnography without the Ethnographer

In discipline, empirical, research on May 16, 2012 at 3:26 pm

While catching up on some reading, I came across some references to consumer research firms’ efforts to do what I can only describe as ethnography without the ethnographer. There are a variety of ways in which this is done. Blogging is one, have people write their own stories about experience in order to understand it better. On the back end use some tools to distill it. I’ve been wondering what the implications of this are ever since.

First, it seems to me that this is part of a trend to make a retail version of a professional knowledge. The migration of ethnography into corporations as their “secret sauce” initially followed the “hire anthropologists or sociologists” model. But it didn’t have too, and apparently it isn’t always following that model any more.

Second, it looks to me like a type of deskilling. If the methods of ethnography (and I don’t just mean the data collection but also the data analysis) have been broken down into their component parts and the ethnographer replaced by technology that seems like a classic case of deskilling. I’m reminded of an article I read in Scientific American a long time ago now by Joan Wallach Scott who wrote about the processes of deskilling as breaking up work into component parts so that it could be migrated from men’s work (in its richest forms) to women’s work to the work of machines. Machines were the sign that the work was at it most routinized.

I’m troubled by this of course, its the type of work that I don’t think can be dealt with in this way, but it is and I am paying attention to the future of it.

CHI 2012: Reviewing

In academia, discipline, empirical, HCI, research on May 15, 2012 at 10:07 am

I attended a few sessions devoted to discussing reviewing for CHI.

In the end I feel that there are two “camps” of ideas for improving the reviewing process and I do not think that they are reconcilable.

One set of suggestions I heard was to conduct experiments with papers and reviews. Several were mentioned. For example, take papers and their reviews and then have other people review them and see whether you can come up with same set of reviews. Another set of thoughts are around the generation of reviewing metrics. Metrics about how long a reviewers review is, how timely they are, and so on and so forth with the goal of creating a record of their behavior that can be used in the future to assess their reviewing ability. Behind these, and other experiments, seems to me at least to be a firm belief that reviewing should be treated as a quantifiable science.

But, then there are counter arguments.

For example, Danyel Fisher made the very astute observation that averages are a relatively meaningless concept in reviewing, even though we make use of them. As he put it, a score of 3 is not the same as a score of 5 and another score of 1. But when we average that’s what we turn those scores into. And he made me reflect on how we can and do talk about the scores in this way…

Jeffrey Bardzell makes an equally compelling case that reviewing is not a science with a comprehensive and  fantastic series of articles (1,2, and 3) in which he argues that it is a process of providing expert judgement. Danyel and Jeff are both, in my mind, getting at the same thing, which is that reviewing is a subjective act, based on expertise and such both its processes and its outputs should be understood and treated in such terms.

And it doesn’t stop with reviewers and ACs. Being a Program Chair is also a matter of expert judgement—one of assigning papers to AC’s and reviewers. Making decisions about how to compose the program committee are all not matters of science but of judgement.

I think the reviewing as science model is doomed to failure, and along the way it will create more work for everyone involved as we try to pursue a set of metrics that do not accurately characterize the work that we do, but become a substitute for it, with all the problems that that can bring. I think we need to take up more seriously the question about how we come to think of ourselves and practice a critical review practice based on a belief that we are experts not participating in a scientific process and what it means to handle not just the process but its products in those ways.