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VIP: Data Ethics and Policy Lab – A student’s perspective

CC BY-NC Image by <a href="">CyberHades</a>

What is Big Data?

When first entering the Data Ethics and Policy Lab, I had not even the slightest idea what the term “Big Data” entailed, nor did I understand the processes used in analyzing such data.  With Frances’s and Kimberly’s willingness to incorporate me into their work, I quickly found a home in the VIP. Our first task as a group was gathering information and resources regarding the use of Big Data Analytics.  That enabled us to generalize what the term “Big Data” was actually referring  to and how we wanted to approach it as a group.  After reading articles from various sources and discussing at length, we decided to approach Big Data from an angle that tackled its correlation with social processes. This strategy strayed away from the common definition of Big Data in which it is characterized by the “3 V’s” – volume, variety, and velocity. For us it was more useful to consider Big Data as a paradigm shift: with big data, n=all, so correlations can be derived without reference to a pre-determined hypothesis.  This shift has major implications for practice areas where data sets may contain extensive implicit bias.  We narrowed our focus to two primary questions: 1) how the use of Big Data presents ethical challenges (philosophy), 2) how to make public sector use of Big Data unbiased, accountable, transparent, and in determinant cases, appealable (policy).  

The Experience

Throughout the VIP, I was constantly exposed to elements that helped build my research skills and ability. Because the Data Ethics and Policy Lab is an early stage research VIP, I was able to explore avenues and ways of researching that I had not been exposed to prior to joining.  This was done in several ways, for example, by analyzing papers, refining search terms, sifting through articles, and maintaining a research process journal.  During my first semester in the VIP, my final project was developing a taxonomy of issues in big data and decision making.  This taxonomy will help the team create a model of the processes we care about (ex., where does bias enter the system?) to refine and center the research focus.  For my second semester in the VIP, my final project will be presenting some of my own work drawn from a literature review at the Undergraduate Research Conference.  In my presentation, I will be exploring how many recommendations to lessen bias in recommender systems follow a utilitarian framework that has the potential to magnify or entrench bias against minority groups rather than mitigate it.  Kimberly and Frances both gave amazing advice as to how to improve in certain areas of my research and gave me valuable references to use. 

Overall this experience was very worthwhile. It was something that I had no previous experience with which allowed for huge growth despite my numerous struggles with the research process. Never before had I had such an open-ended project with no specific guidelines, but in hindsight this is what has allowed me to grow and learn in ways I never expected.  I walked away feeling benefited from the experience.

Gabe Turner