A novel idea
A week or so ago I was directed to an interesting article through American Libraries Direct, the regular e-newsletter for the American Library Association. The name of the article was Our data, ourselves by Leon Neyfakh. I found it to be really insightful. The gist of the article talked about how Americans feel that data is theirs, that they own it and how keeping it locked up and private might be hurtful to our communities.
I have to admit, on the surface I totally agree with the idea of my information. I mean I’m a librarian, I’m all about privacy. But the more I read of the article the more I understood what it was trying to say. Is it moral to hide so much data about ourselves that we impede growth for our world? I was in high school when the .com era started. Everyone in the world was talking about privacy and how anyone could find you now. I was feed fear of the system because I could be hunted by some crazy online predator that would take advantage of me at minimum and kill me at worst. Truly, that’s what I was told. I skirted online technology since and in all honesty didn’t understand the utilization of social media up until about 2.5 years ago. Oh, I’ve always thought the possibilities were amazing, they get me excited, but the fear was always greater than those possibilities. In my current professional life I have since had the brilliant opportunity to work with individuals that have helped shape my thinking in different ways. Now I’m swimming in technology and still learning more about every day! And I LOVE it!
The article by Neyfakh attempts to make the case that we just might have a civic obligation to turning over some data. A large amount of the commentary for this was cited from Brooklyn Law School professor Jane Yakowitz. Her proposed paper (Privacy and the Public Interest: An Appraisal of the State of Law on Public Releases on Research Data) is said to discuss how a “data commons” could collect large amounts of anonymous data for research and public service purposes. The key word there being anonymous. I know the argument there is going to be that nothing online is anonymous. Yakowitz seems to think that fear might be misplaced and perhaps she has a point.
I couldn’t help while reading through this thinking about the differences between individualistic and collectivistic cultures. The United States is an individualistic culture so we own our data. I wonder if that mentality, in terms of data, has been adopted from more collectivist societies, i.e. Japan. Then you have issues on net neutrality that can be explored because not everyone’s web is wide open, maybe not even America’s depending on whether you’re a conspiracy guru. In Neyfakh’s paper Yakowitz states, “Property rules are where people end up going when something is new and uncertain, when we aren’t sure what to do with something new, there are always a lot of stakeholders who claim a property interest in it. And I think that’s sort of what happened with data.” There is also a “big government” argument in there I’m sure of it. 🙂
A complicated issue. But the library fits into it somewhere. I’m of the opinion that libraries are really about information, not books per say. Well what is information if not just a collection of possibly analyzed data? If that’s the case and if libraries are about free access to information couldn’t we also make the argument that this “data commons” is a good thing? The average American going to the library might find need in some of that anonymous data, to say nothing about a researcher. Stats on medical treatment success, behavior therapy options, addiction recovery, school success rates, and not just simple things like how a school performs, but how a 6 yr old white suburban girl might do in an inner city magnet school. Could creating those access points be a part of the libraries future?
Sounds kinda Google doesn’t it? Wow! Libraries and Google! Together??? Well holy cow a similar mission. Go figure.
I don’t mean to simplify this. I understand (and even still have the fear) of turning over huge amounts of personal data, anonymous or not (do I have any “tree of knowledge” people out there?). But maybe it could be for the public good. I don’t know how or when or who but maybe somebody, sometime, with integrity.
What do you think? Would you be ok with handing over data for the public good? Is it possible? Does it make you get butterflies in your stomach to even think about or are you wide open and transparent?