Nov 14, 2016

An Open Letter to the Community

Change Begins at the School of Information

Many come to the School of Information to understand the impact that information has on individuals and society, and the ways in which people make decisions with information to shape human institutions. Many come to enact change: to influence public policy, to argue for the right to privacy in an era of data analytics, to ensure that information industries afford transparency, security, due process, and fairness to all. Many are committed to the idea that information technology can and will improve the lives of people all over the globe, but not on its own. It can only do so if we understand how to develop, deploy, regulate, pay for, and shape digital technologies with a clear view of their interactions with the human person.

None of that changed on November 8. If anything, the role of data and information in the campaign of 2016 may make this commitment even more important.

The results of last week’s presidential election place the country in a moment of uncertain transition. The outcome of the election came as a surprise to many, and there is a lack of clarity about the incoming administration’s views on a range of policy and political issues, from information technology to national security. Whatever your feelings about the outcome of the election and any potential impacts of the incoming administration, you will always have the agency to enact the change you want to see in the world of information and society.

By being at this school, you are in one of the best strategic positions to make change happen. At their best, information schools exist to enable public service — to allow students to draw on informed perspectives from computer science, public policy, sociology, and law, and to have conversations that are focused not only on theory and algorithms, but on the impact that information has on society.

So how can you take advantage of the resources available to you at the School of Information to help improve society?

We can begin with inquiry. As a first step, we can diagnose the situation before us. We can think through the data we have about the world and people’s behavior, and the data we would like to have to formulate questions and test hypotheses that this election has brought to the fore. Engage your peers; they have diverse experiences and skills. Brainstorm with faculty; stop by our office hours; design your dissertations or MIMS or MIDS final projects (or other research projects) around topics that will have a meaningful impact in the world. The Center for Technology, Society & Policy and the Center for Long-Term Cybersecurity are both focal points for work in this area.

Here are some questions that may be worth asking:

1) The future of polling. The media and the public are responding to polling problems with two divergent reactions: “The danger lies in trusting the data too much” and “the danger lies in trusting the data not enough.” Polling models perhaps don’t often consider the impacts of emotions like anger, fear, resentment, and disillusionment. We can build models and metrics and empirical methods to measure these sentiments. Rather than giving up on polling, we need to improve it.

2) Political echo chambers. The election of 2016 saw the largest fraction of landslide counties (where either candidate beat the other by over 20 percentage points) than any other election in recent history [1]. Political belief appears to be intensely polarized; some evidence suggests that social media tends to create filter bubbles, where people self-select into insular communities of unrealistically similar opinions while being insulated from the full range of opinions that others outside the bubble hold. Constantly being reinforced with opinions like our own can give the false impression that a majority of others hold those views, thus influencing our vision of reality. How has technology kept us from understanding one another specifically? Has technology undermined empathy? How do we create technologies to get outside of these bubbles?

3) Preventing hate crime. Many are concerned about the rise in hate crimes and heightened acts of bigotry directed toward minorities, and online harassment and bullying have long been problems on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. We have faculty and students already looking at these issues, and there is considerable work to be done to understand and address these issues.

4) Bridging the Washington–Silicon Valley divide. Politicians and the technology community cooperate and disagree on matters of policy regularly. Notable recent areas of discussion include the National Security Agency’s surveillance techniques and the encryption debate regarding government access to platforms. During the campaign of 2016, tensions existed between Silicon Valley companies and Donald Trump’s campaign. Going forward, the Trump Administration will need to engage with the technology community, just as the technology community will need to engage the U.S. government. Where can we find common interests that advance our shared goals, in cybersecurity, data analytics, and information management?

5) The future of political influence. The president-elect promised during his campaign to break the control of the Washington establishment on policy. What does that mean in practice, how will we know if it happens, and how can we tell if it improves matters of policy and regulation? Determined people have maintained power through networks of pay-to-play trade groups, think tanks, and even academic centers. Researchers in this community might be able to explore new methods for detecting the flow of influence in our political system through proxies other than money.

6) The opportunity for analysis. The incoming Trump Administration may have vastly different views on economics and policy than the Obama Administration. While some actors in the government may pursue ideology over data, established policymakers often pride themselves on being evidence-driven. This community is uniquely qualified with backgrounds in qualitative and quantitative methods, economics, law, policy, and computer science to provide fact-based analytical narratives to the incoming team. In some debates, those narratives will be consonant with the new policy goals; in others, their dissonance could give the legislative branch and the judicial branch a powerful counter-narrative to that which may emerge from the administration.

7) Analysis and tools to support social change. Technology’s role in supporting social change is a rich area for research. How can existing research inform today’s social movements? What new tools to support activists in the streets, the halls of government, and the media might be built from new technologies such as biosensors and artificial intelligence? How might technology, design thinking, and art be used to engage the public or strategic actors in policy debates in the new administration?

8) Building the world you want. Winner, Latour, Lessig, Nissenbaum, and others make us keenly aware of the power technology has to protect, promote, and undermine values. If the halls of Congress and regulatory agencies are looking less hospitable for the values you care about, can technology play a role in protecting them? The rising focus on privacy, fairness, and transparency by design show that those who build technical systems can make important contributions to values. How might you leverage that work to support other values?


David Bamman
Assistant Professor

John Chuang

Jesse Goldhammer
Associate Dean for Business Development and Strategic Planning

Chris Hoofnagle
Adjunct Professor

Deirdre Mulligan
Associate Professor

Anno Saxenian
Dean of the I School and Professor (I School and Dept. of City and Regional Planning)

Steve Weber
Professor (I School and Dept. of Political Science)

Last updated:

December 12, 2016