Policy Provides Context to Understand Data

How many rewards cards hang on your keychain? How many website accounts do you maintain? How much information do you share with organizations? Type your name into Spokeo and see what comes up. Chances are, it’s pretty accurate.

Many places collect personal information; that’s nothing new. But combine the ability to store unlimited amounts of data, aggregate and analyze massive datasets, and instantly release information into the public realm. You get the power to use customer behavior to determine when women are pregnant. You get maps that show addresses of people licensed to own pistols. You get the question of how aggressively to prosecute someone who downloads too many articles.

What are the implications of this? Thinking from a policy perspective can help journalists spur discussions around the role and use of data.

Take the case of Target’s data mining to pinpoint pregnant customers. Companies can link data they collect from customer interactions, data from public records, and data they purchase from third parties to build extremely detailed profiles of people. Do terms of use and privacy policies adequately convey this potential? These terms govern nearly every organization we interact with; is it possible to escape data collection? What policies, organizational or regulatory, can enable consumers to control their own data? Do consumers even care?

Journalists should also consider the policy implications of their own work. For example, the New York-based Journal News obtained gun license data, which was public, and mapped the addresses of those licensed to own pistols. This sparked an outcry among citizens and triggered debate among media circles as to whether “journalists have a free pass to do whatever they want with public-record data.” New York state then passed legislation that removed such information from public access. The incident reminds journalists to ask the question, “What do I hope to accomplish with this story,” at each step of the reporting process.

Government use of data is another area ripe for data storytelling. As Scott Shackford writes:

“The degradation of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments is an academic or theoretical matter for so many people and often lacks a strong human narrative to draw public outrage….Whereas, just about everybody’s on Facebook. Facebook’s privacy systems affect them directly every day, and they see it. So Americans are furious that Instagram might sell their photos, while shrugging at what the federal government might do with the exact same data.”

Data and policy are not independent. For this reason, policy coursework comprises the third leg of my concentration in data storytelling (with data analysis and design being the first and second). Understanding what organizations do with data is as important as using data to present compelling stories.

What data policy issues would you like to see journalists explore? Describe them in the comments below.
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One comment

  1. Pingback: Summer Plans: Researching Online Freedom of Expression | Dear Data

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