sneak peak: data goes bang episode 1, a newsletter about personal data

Today, I want to share last week’s inaugural edition of data goes bang. We started data goes bang to lead a conversation about personal data and privacy on the modern web. I’m sharing the first edition here so you can get a sense of where we are headed and hopefully add your email and follow along.

If you are at all interested in what happens to personal data today, subscribe to the newsletter and enjoy our weekly links and commentary on important issues. This week’s episode will come out in just a couple of days.

Here you go, data goes bang episode 1. Originally sent 02/14/18!

data goes bang: a valentine’s letter to your digital half

This week: why you should swipe right on your personal data, a healthy relationship with artificial intelligence, and our European romance.

Hi everybody!

In case you haven’t left home yet, today is Valentine’s Day. What a great day to kick off a newsletter about personal data, why we should care about it, and what we need to know about it. I learned from a few excellent collaborators over the years that themes are great for adding a spark to a recurring topic. So here we go…. ♥♥♥

First of all, thanks for joining the data goes bang newsletter. This is a small project, inspired by another newsletter I have loved, Not Doomed Yet. The idea is, as Robinson Meyer from NDY put it, “sustained, non-anxious attention to a vast problem is the only way to manage it”. For me, it seems obvious that the issues around our personal data, who can access it, who owns it, and how can it be used are issues that also require a greater level of non-anxious attention.

This newsletter will mostly focus on sharing small summaries of projects, interviews, and talks that are particularly enlightening about what is going on and what will come in areas related to our personal data. If you enjoy it, run with the Valentine’s theme and forward it to a few people you love. They can always join us here on data goes bang.

Why you should swipe right on your personal data

It’s hard to know who your audience is online — are you all academics researching data and privacy or are you all friends of my mother? Either way, I think the most important place to start is with some ideas about why our personal data is so important. One of my favorite discussions on the importance of personal data was captured in a graphic novel in 2014. Michael Keller and Josh Neufeld wrote, Terms of Service: Understanding our role in the world of Big Data as a field guide to the topic of this newsletter. I’ve re-read Terms of Service three times in the past two weeks and one of the lines that I keep circling back to in my thinking is, Who gets to tell a story about you?

If you haven’t spent much time thinking on this topic recently, definitely remove those cobwebs by reading Terms of Service, then come back here and we’ll keep going.

A healthy relationship with artificial intelligence

We live in a world now where algorithms are king, already beating humans at a number of complicated tasks. In case you missed it, Google is now the world champion of both Go and Chess. So what of artificial intelligence in regard to our personal data, is it good, bad, who cares?

The thing about having so much data is that it’s now impossible for any team of data scientists to manually do anything with it. That means that more and more, they are bringing in stronger and stronger algorithms to do the heavy lifting. What’s the next thing you see on your Facebook feed? An algorithm chooses. Which way will you drive to work in the morning? An algorithm chooses. Which notification will you see on your iPhone? An algorithm chooses.

Before we go any deeper into algorithms, machine learning, or AI (and deeper we will go), I wanted to share one of my favorite recent articles on the subject. Don’t worry if you don’t work with data or algorithms or machines! Asking the Right Questions About AI by Yonatan Zunger talks about some of the pitfalls we’ve already experienced with trained AI and why those pitfalls raise challenges for us, simple humans. This article will help raise the issue of how much we should accept AI making key decisions (e.g. insurance, credit, parole) that involve personal data.

One of the key nuggets in the article is:

  • Machine-learned models have a very nasty habit: they will learn what the data shows them, and then tell you what they’ve learned. They obstinately refuse to learn “the world as we wish it were,” or “the world as we like to claim it is,” unless we explicitly explain to them what that is — even if we like to pretend that we’re doing no such thing.”

Okay, read it? Now, let me quote again from Terms of Service, Who gets to tell a story about you?

Our European romance

Issues with how our data crosses international borders is important to pay attention to, but I have the feeling that as Americans we notice this issue less than many Europeans do right now. Outside of maybe the upcoming GDPR start date (which we’ll get deeper into in later issues), one of the biggest topics in Europe regarding personal data is, how much is the US Government allowed to collect about European individuals by collaborating with US technology companies.

You may be looking for some cliffsnotes on the topic, so here is a really entertaining talk given by someone at the center of the issue: Privacy Shield — Lipstick on a Pig? from Max Schrems. In that talk, you’ll get an almost 7 year overview of the battle for personal data privacy between Europeans and the USA. One of my favorite lines from that talk was, “Fuck, we got the Essence!”, hopefully that gets you intrigued.

Finally, a link to bring it up to now. As far as I know, this is a separate front in the battle, but we also heard this week that a German court found Facebook’s use of personal data illegal.

Ta da!

Thanks very much for reading! Today’s newsletter helped set the scene for a few important topics that will come up many times as we continue onward. I’m really looking forward to taking the next steps. If you haven’t already, remember to subscribe here. Otherwise, remember to love your data.

Happy V-Day,


Links from today’s newsletter