Le Guin and data subversions

Thu Dec 9, 2021
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In Part 2 of the Ursula Le Guin workstream for our Experimentalism project, we explore practical opportunities for marginalised communities to be pioneers in data policy and digital technologies

The Open Data Institute (ODI)’s Public Policy team is undertaking an ambitious international project, called ‘Experimentalism and the Fourth Industrial Revolution’. We are exploring how data policymakers and data practitioners can work in more innovative and experimental ways to adapt to, and leverage, the fast-moving societal and economic challenges and opportunities around new data availability and associated digital technologies.

The project runs in three parallel workstreams named after sci fi writers. This workstream is named after Ursula Le Guin and focuses on marginalised communities in North America and Europe as data and digital pioneers. 

This is part 2, which focuses on practical opportunities for innovation and experimentation in data policy and practice.

Participation without permission

In her novel The Dispossessed (1974), Ursula Le Guin writes, ‘You cannot buy the Revolution. You cannot make the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution. It is in your spirit or it is nowhere.’ Insights from critical theory suggest that marginalised communities are uniquely placed to understand the systems they operate in, and to identify the tensions and contradictions in those systems that can be leveraged to bring about change.

In Part 1 of this project, we explored the parameters for experimentalism and innovation in data policy and practice. Some key questions emerged, including:

When should we experiment?

  • What might be the role of experimentation when we are in fast-changing or uncertain parameters?
  • What might be the role of experimentation when the stakes for action or inaction are high?
  • What might be the role of experimentation when resources are scarce?

How should we experiment?

  • How do we define a hypothesis or goal when navigating unprecedented circumstances?

Who could or should be experimenting?

What could or should we be experimenting with?

These were the starting points for Part 2.

On 6 December 2021, the ODI in partnership with Data & Society and the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex convened an online roundtable of international representatives from government, academia, business and civil society. We explored participation without permission and ‘gaming the algorithm’, data and digital tech for solidarity against loneliness and isolation, unforeseen consequences of creating new markets for data institutions, and gig workers and collective bargaining in data ecosystems and data economies. We’re sharing some of the insights from the meeting here to open up the learnings and broaden the discussion.

Roundtable provocations

Introduction: Le Guin and data subversions – Dr Mahlet (“Milly”) Zimeta, Head of Public Policy, ODI

Some key questions:

  • How can we move beyond a ‘deficit model’ framing of marginalised communities in data policy and practice, to a model that fully recognises the ways in which they are or can be pioneers?
  • What does Gramsci’s advice ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’ look like in data policy and practice?

Keynote: Participation Without Permission – Professor Jenna Burrell, Director of Research, Data & Society

Some key questions:

  • Is the scientific model of experimentation, with distance between the observed and the observer, the right model for understanding human expression around data and digital tech?
  • What are the key frameworks that mean that innovation and experimentation with digital technology by marginal communities might be labelled as ‘misuse’ or ‘gaming the algorithm’?
  • How can we design digital technologies that are suited to being ‘subverted’ for social utility?

Provocation 1: Experimentation and Innovation in Local Data Ecosystems – Dr Kate Devlin, Senior Lecturer in Social and Cultural Artificial Intelligence, King’s College London

Innovation and experimentation in local data ecosystems‘, Dr Kate Devlin, presentation slides

Some key questions:

  • Which communities have been marginalised from data and digital tech policy, and what are the blindspots or assumptions underlying this?
  • What can we learn from marginalised communities about using digital technologies to counter isolation and loneliness?
  • How can data availability be used for data solidarity by marginalised communities?

Provocation 2: Experimentation and Innovation in Sector Data Ecosystems – Professor Maria Savona, Professor of Economics of Innovation at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), University of Sussex

Some key questions:

  • How can we maximise data sharing for social value, and not just for business value?
  • What might be the unintended consequences of creating new markets for different kinds of data institutions?
  • What kind of governance might be needed over new or experimental data governance initiatives?

Provocation 3: Experimentation and Innovation in Data/AI Governance – Becky Wright, Executive Director, Unions 21

Experimentation and Innovation in Data/AI Governance‘, Becky Wright, presentation slides

Some key questions:

  • What can we learn and apply from previous industrial revolutions to the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
  • How might the concept of ‘labour’ need to change for application in data ecosystems and data economies?
  • What role could trade unions play in stewarding data created by workers or created by customers or other data subjects?

Get involved

We’ve created a short summary note with a distillation of the high-level themes and observations that emerged in discussion. It’s available here as a ‘living document’, and we welcome and encourage reader comments on it, as part of a community of practice, and to inform how the project develops.

The summary note also includes a Resource Guide that we hope you find useful, and that you can contribute to. If you would like to explore any of these ideas and opportunities further with any of the event partners, or in collaboration with us, we’d be keen to hear from you. Some immediate practical opportunities might be around ODI Research Fellowships. There are also opportunities to explore the work of the European Commission’s High-Level Expert Group on the Impact of the Digital Transformation on EU Labour Markets, the Data Justice Lab’s Civic Participation in the Datafied Society conference, and Data & Society’s research on Labor Futures.

Find out more about the project and sign up to the project mailing list here, contact the team at experimentalism@theodi.org, or look out for our news on Twitter: @ODIHQ.