IT Futures: Is data just information?

Sharon Boyd  The theme of this year’s IT Futures conference, here at the University of Edinburgh, was Morals, Ethics, Surveillance, Security, or “MESS” as Charles Raab (Social and Political Science) pointed out.  Acronym aside, as always, the conference was very well organised.  The weather outside may have been wintry, but the conference team was well prepared, with warm muffins and mulled wine to fend off the cold.

The Principal, Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea, opened the proceedings with his usual flair, and I was particularly interested in his description of the many citizen and community science projects ongoing worldwide, and the inspiration these provide for the University when considering future research. Following the session, I trekked away to find out more about Observatree, which engages the community as observers, inviting them to report on health problems with their local trees.  This local citizen input assists the science community with tracking and responding to disease trends and outbreaks.

Continuing this theme on engagement, William Mackaness (GeoSciences) emphasised the importance of castleglobal participation in solving world problems.  However, the reality is less than open, and the input is often not quite so much crowdsourced as groupsourced.  Participants are often from a small, select group, displaying the exclusive, rather than the empowering, nature of IT.  Or as William put it: “map or be mapped”.  With William’s presentation in mind, Brian Gilmore’s (Information Services) choice of images at the start of his talk took on a different meaning.  While Brian was giving us a brief history of system security, his images of castles of varying size called to mind William’s concerns about governmental control.

Brian’s talk also demonstrated how effective narrative is in a presentation; we were engaged with a range of stories showing us how vulnerable our systems and devices are, and he even had props!  Charles Raab provided the core ethical and legal considerations of data use and, together with Brian’s information, made us more aware of the issues of personal privacy.  We were encouraged to reflect on what “private” means to us, what constitutes “personal” data and how is this used.

Running beneath these considerations was the reminder that this is not simply about stored data gathered by governments, institutions and organisations – or our “impersonal” personal data.  Adam Carter and Orestis Palermos (Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences) invited us to consider the boundaries of what makes us ‘us’.  Given that so much of what we know and are, our personalities and interests, are stored on external devices, where is the dividing line?  What constitutes assault on this external cognitive device, and are we dealing with issues of bioracism, where we prioritise biological storage over our technologically stored data-selves?  I was in agreement with Jessie Paterson (Royal Dick Vet School), when she said she looked anew at the mobile phone in her hand.

David Hope and Avril Dewar (Centre for Medical Education) focussed on the ethical responsibility of data use.  While the technology facilitates the collection of a wide range of student performance data, we must decide what is necessary to capture, and who has permission to access that information.  The goal is to ensure the appropriate use of data to support student wellbeing, but effective safeguards must be set in place to achieve this.  As an example, in her role as non-teaching academic, Avril acts as data “gatekeeper”, anonymising student data and responding to data requests from other members of the academic team.

This effective use of data linked to the final presentation by Sarah Cunningham-Burley (Molecular, Genetic and Population Health Sciences) which in turn brought us full circle to the ethics of community engagement.  Looking specifically at medical data, it was interesting to see how much we are prepared to give in terms of “private” data if we trust the institution we are sharing it with and believe it is part of a wider intention to benefit society.  However, the difficulty lies in defining what the terms “public good” and “social benefit” mean, and how we, as an institution, can deliver results and keep participants informed on progress.  This “dynamic relationship between researchers and the public” should be deliberative, encourage open dialogue, and facilitate involvement through new modes of communication.  In this, Sarah was echoing the Principal’s earlier call to us all to break down the walls of the institution, and develop a truly open, international, citizen research community.

For me, the conference as a whole emphasised that the data we hold is our responsibility.  We need to be actively aware of our own personal data footprint and the security of our cognitive extensions.  As a trusted institution, we must protect and use wisely the data shared by others.  At the core of the discussion is balance between the potential risks of open data and governmental control and the possibilities of public engagement and empowerment.  But the conference was also a great reminder of the high calibre of staff and research underway here at Edinburgh.  This year, the focus was on internal presenters, and I agree with Jeff Haywood’s (Vice Principal) closing comment that it was the best IT Futures to date.

About the author

sboydSharon Boyd is Director of the Certificate in Advanced Veterinary Practice and Associate Lecturer in Distance Education at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, University of Edinburgh. Her work is primarily with online distance learning postgraduate students, though she is also involved in veterinary undergraduate professional skills teaching. Her research interests are in digital and sustainable education. You can follow her on twitter @sboydie


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