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Understanding the technologies shaping us, so we can shape them

Web Foundation · February 22, 2018

One of the most hopeful features of technology is that it’s always evolving. If we don’t like the way a technology is working, we can change it. This, of course, is a complex and constant challenge, but one that all of us — civil society, policymakers and citizens — must take up to ensure the digital tools we use benefit ourselves and our communities.

To identify what changes are most needed, it’s important we fully grasp the dynamics of any given technology. That’s why the Web Foundation conducts original research to help understand the issues, contexts and levers of change in the areas where we work.

Last year we published research on the potential impacts of key emerging technologies, focusing on low and middle-income countries which are often overlooked in the future of technology debate. Now, in collaboration with partners, and with financial support from Omidyar Network, we’re digging deeper into questions around algorithms, political advertising, online privacy and open data.

Here are the four questions we want to answer:

How are governments using algorithms in public policy and decision making?

The spread of connected devices, the rise of ‘big data’, and expanding processing power have ushered artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms into the mainstream. Today governments — armed with volumes of public data — are using AI systems to automate decision processes and deliver services. Done well, these tools can improve public services and government responsiveness, but they can also lead to poor decision-making and discrimination.

This research will map the initiatives being pursued by governments in half a dozen countries. We’ll look at a number of factors including the companies partnering with governments; the underlying variables and statistical models being used for decision making, and whether or not the inputs of these systems are publicly available and the outcomes are explainable. In short, are these tools being used in a way that will improve public services and benefit citizens?

Our goal is not only to advance our understanding of AI in the public sector, but to examine how transparent governments are being with these projects, and encourage them to open these tools up for scrutiny so that the public can be sure they are benefiting from these technologies.



How is your personal data being used in political advertising?

The rules that governed elections in the 20th century are not fit for purpose in the 21st. Our electoral regulations are not equipped to monitor the sophisticated industry that has risen to package and sell voter data, and conduct highly targeted online ad campaigns. While we were once able to observe the messages that campaigns promoted, and who saw them, today we’re in the dark.

There will be up to 16 national elections in Latin America this year. Many of the region’s countries have outdated data protection laws and relaxed implementation, creating a ripe environment for the kind of unaccountable targeting of political ads that have undermined the integrity of elections elsewhere. We will scope the state of targeted political advertising in a country in the region with an upcoming general election, looking at the companies providing these services, their working methods, and the underlying data they’re using to build campaigns.

We hope this research will help electoral authorities and civil rights organisations better understand the challenges of data protection and electoral integrity, and will help us move towards reformed electoral standards that are fit for 21st Century democracies.



How do teenage social media users understand privacy trade-offs?

Technology should be empowering and yet we have little say over the terms of engagement with the companies that build our online services. As a result, most people have just a basic understanding of how their data is used — we tick, click and hope for the best. The lack of power over personal data is particularly troubling in developing countries where people accessing the internet for the first time typically do so through mobile devices, often forfeiting their personal data to social media apps and other closed platforms.

This project will look at how teenagers in Indonesia, the Philippines and Kenya use social media, how they understand the privacy implications of using these services, and what steps they take, if any, to protect themselves and their privacy online. Research shows that teens use social media at higher levels than other age groups and are exposed to a number of risks online, and so it’s important that we understand their relationship with privacy.

Ultimately we want people to be in control of their personal data and ensure it’s being used in ways that benefit them. The findings of this project will help us to design interventions to help people take control of their digital lives and move us closer to our vision of a technologically empowered citizenry.



How is open data working for women in Africa?

We strongly believe that open data is about more than just innovation — it’s also about giving people tools to improve their communities and hold leaders to account. And while all people should benefit from open data, our Open Data Barometer has uncovered a ‘sexist data crisis’. As well as a lack of gender-disaggregated data, women are less likely to be consulted on the design of data policies, are underrepresented among the ranks of data scientists and are often uncounted in official statistics. To ensure open data works for all, we need to work towards data equity.

This study will map stakeholders and open data policies in Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Cameroon, Uganda, and South Africa in order to understand how gender data is treated in these countries. We’ll look at which access to information and gender equality principles are included in legislation, whether countries have open data policies — and if those policies specifically address gender. We will also examine how data is captured and the extent to which it is gender disaggregated, and observe how women use budget, contracting, and spending datasets.

With this research, we aim to open up a conversation on the current state of gender and government data and to provide case studies and recommendations for how it can be improved.


Follow us on Twitter and subscribe to our newsletter for updates on all of these projects in the coming months. If you work on these issues and want to talk to us about any of this research, we’d love to hear from you.

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