You hear sirens blaring in your neighborhood and, naturally, you are curious about the cause of commotion. Your first reaction might be to turn on the local TV news or go online and check the local newspaper. Unfortunately, unless the issue is of significant importance, your initial search of these media will be probably be fruitless. But, if you turn to social media, you are likely to find other neighbors reporting relevant information, giving firsthand accounts, or, at the very least, wondering what is going on as well.
Social media allows people to quickly spread information and, in urban environments, its presence is ubiquitous. However, social media is also noisy, chaotic, and hard to understand for those unfamiliar with, for example, the intricacies of hashtags and social media lingo. It should be no surprise that, regardless of the popularity of social media, people are still using TV and newspapers as their main sources for local information, while social media is just beginning to emerge as a useful information source. We created Whoo.ly to address this issue.
Two years ago, when I started working on issues related to human trafficking and technology, I was frustrated by how few people recognized the potential of technology to help address the commercial sexual exploitation of children. With the help of a few colleagues at Microsoft Research, I crafted a framework document to think through the intersection of technology and trafficking. After talking with Mark Latonero at USC (who has been writing brilliant reports on technology and human trafficking), I teamed up with folks at MSR Connections and Microsoft’s Digital Crimes Unit to help fund research in this space. Over the last year, I’ve been delighted to watch a rich scholarly community emerge that takes seriously the importance of data for understanding and intervening in human trafficking issues that involve technology.
Meanwhile, to my delight, technologists have started to recognize that they can develop innovative systems to help address human trafficking. NGOs have started working with computer scientists, companies have started working with law enforcement, and the White House has started bringing together technologists, domain experts, and policy makers to imagine how technology can be used to combat human trafficking. The potential of these initiatives tickles me pink.
Watching this unfold, one thing that I struggle with is that there’s often a disconnect between what researchers are learning and what the public thinks is happening vis-a-vis the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC). On too many occasions, I’ve watched well-intentioned technologists approach the space with a naiveté that comes from only knowing about human trafficking through media portrayals. While the portraits that receive widespread attention are important for motivating people to act, understanding the nuance and pitfalls of the space are critical for building interventions that will actually make a difference.
To bridge the gap between technologists and researchers, I worked with a group of phenomenal researchers to produce a simple 4-page fact sheet intended to provide a very basic primer on issues in human trafficking and CSEC that technologists need to know before they build interventions:
Some of the issues we address include:
- Youth often do not self-identify themselves as victims.
- “Survival sex” is one aspect of CSEC.
- Previous sexual abuse, homelessness, family violence, and foster care may influence youth’s risk of exploitation.
- Arresting victims undermines efforts to combat CSEC.
- Technologies should help disrupt criminal networks.
- Post-identification support should be in place before identification interventions are implemented.
- Evaluation, assessment, and accountability are critical for any intervention.
- Efforts need to be evidence-based.
- The cleanliness of data matters.
- Civil liberties are important considerations.
This high-level overview is intended to shed light on some of the most salient misconceptions and provide some key insights that might be useful for those who want to make a difference. By no means does it cover everything that experts know, but it provides some key touchstones that may be useful. It is limited to the issues that are most important for technologists, but those who are working with technologists may also find it to be valuable.
As researchers dedicated to addressing human trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation of children, we want to make sure that the passion that innovative technologists are bringing to the table is directed in the most helpful ways possible. We hope that what we know can be of use to those who are also looking to end exploitation.
(Flickr image by Martin Gommel)
Image credit: Harvard Business Review.
SMC Principal Researcher Kate Crawford reached the number-one slot on the “Most Read” list of the Harvard Business Review this week with her sharp and insightful blog post on the weaknesses of big data.
Debunking the commonly held belief that “numbers speak for themselves” in large data sets, Kate brings the voice of reason to utopian and determinist claims that reams of “raw” data are the solution for a multitude of societal ills:
Data and data sets are not objective; they are creations of human design. We give numbers their voice, draw inferences from them, and define their meaning through our interpretations. Hidden biases in both the collection and analysis stages present considerable risks, and are as important to the big-data equation as the numbers themselves.
Kate goes on to argue that while they may seem abstract, data sets are “intricately linked to physical place and human culture”, and that both qualitative methods and computational social science will need to join forces in order to fulfill the true potential of big data science: ”data with depth”.
To read the full piece, click here.
Have you downloaded your Twitter archive? Would you like to? Do you want to talk about it? Nancy Baym and Jean Burgess are seeking to interview people about how their Twitter use has changed over time. We are seeking Twitter users in the Boston area who have or can get their Twitter archive (For instructions see here). To participate you must be willing to (1) share your archive with us (2) read it in advance of the interview to flag points where things change, (3) sit down with Jean and Nancy to talk about those points.
In return we will provide you with a $20 Amazon gift card.
If you are interested in participating please contact Nancy Baym as soon as possible. We will then follow up to coordinate. If you’re not in the Boston area and interested, let us know that too, you never know where projects will go.
Sitting with a group of graduating high school seniors last summer, the conversation turned to college roommates. Although headed off to different schools, they had a similar experience of learning their roommate assignment and immediately turning to Facebook to investigate that person. Some had already begun developing deep, mediated friendships while others had already asked for roommate transfers. Beyond roommates, all had used Facebook to find other newly minted freshman, building relationships long before they set foot on campus.
At first blush, this seems like a win for students. Going off to college can be a scary proposition, full of uncertainty, particularly about social matters. Why not get a head start building friends from the safety of your parent’s house?
What most students (and parents) fail to realize is that the success of the American college system has less to do with the quality of the formal education than it does with the social engineering project that is quietly enacted behind the scenes each year. Roommates are structured to connect incoming students with students of different backgrounds. Dorms are organized to cross-breed the cultural diversity that exists on campus. Early campus activities are designed to help people encounter people whose approach to the world is different than theirs. This process has a lot of value because it means that students develop an appreciation for difference and build meaningful relationships that will play a significant role for years to come. The friendships and connections that form on campuses shape future job opportunities and help create communities that change the future. We hear about famous college roommates as exemplars. Heck, Facebook itself was created by a group of Harvard roommates. But the more basic story is how people learn to appreciate difference, often by suffering through the challenges of entering college together.
When pre-frosh turn to Facebook before arriving on campus, they do so to find other people who share their interests, values, and background. As such, they begin a self-segregation process that results in increased “homophily” on campuses. Homophily is a sociological concept that refers to the notion that birds of a feather stick together. In other words, teens inadvertently undermine the collegiate social engineering project of creating diverse connections through common experiences. Furthermore, because Facebook enables them to keep in touch with friends from high school, college freshman spend extensive time maintaining old ties rather than building new ones. They lose out on one of the most glorious benefits of the American collegiate system: the ability to diversify their networks.
Facebook is not itself the problem. The issue stems from how youth use Facebook and the desire that many youth have to focus on building connections to people that think like they do. Building friendships with people who have different political, cultural, religious beliefs is hard. Getting to know people whose life stories seem so foreign is hard. And yet, such relationship building across lines of difference can also be tremendously transformative.
To complicate matters more, parents and high school teachers have beaten into today’s teens’ heads that internet strangers are dangerous. As such, even when teens are turning to Facebook or other services to find future college friends, they are skittish about people who are discomforting to them because they’ve been socialized into being wary of anyone they talk with. The fear-mongering around strangers plays a subtle but powerful role in discouraging teens from doing the disorienting work of getting to know someone truly unfamiliar.
It’s high time we recognize that college isn’t just about formalized learning and skills training, but also a socialization process with significant implications for the future. The social networks that youth build in college have long-lasting implications for youth’s future prospects. One of the reasons that the American college experience is so valuable is because it often produces diverse networks that enable future opportunities. This is also precisely what makes elite colleges elite; the networks that are built through these institutions end up shaping many aspects of power. When less privileged youth get to know children of powerful families, new pathways of opportunity and tolerance are created. But when youth use Facebook to maintain existing insular networks, the potential for increased structural inequity is great.
Photo by Daniel Borman
This post was originally written for LinkedIn. Visit there for additional comments.
(Or: Yale will be next.)
Noted freedom of expression scholar Cherian George has been denied tenure by the Singaporean government against the wishes of his faculty. His error was explaining basic tenets of political philosophy in an editorial. I’m writing about it because this is an American problem.
Like Prof. George, I am also a professor working in the area of Internet policy. I first encountered George’s work on the subject in 2003 as guest editor for The Communication Review, where I published his research on Singaporean and Malaysian approaches to Internet censorship. I was fascinated by his comments about what happens in Singaporean Internet forums when the government is criticized. He is well-known in my circles for his 2006 book Contentious Journalism and the Internet.
Unlike Prof. George, I am an American academic with no particular connection to Singapore. And yet – strangely, unexpectedly – the Singaporean government routinely appears in my professional life and in American academia. While in Singapore for an international conference, my taxi driver asked me what I did for a living. When I said that I was a professor, he asked when I was relocating. He explained that “Singapore buys the best American professors.” He went on to highlight two specific professors in science and medicine that had been lured to Singapore. (“What a place!” I thought, “where the average taxi driver cares so much about science!”)
While at my previous position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign the university accepted a $75m grant from the Singaporean government to establish The Advanced Digital Sciences Center at the Fusionopolis Complex, Singapore. An annual group of Singaporean Ph.D. students now visit Illinois for two years and ultimately receive an Illinois Ph.D. As a part of this program, Illinois faculty were offered the opportunity to as much as double their faculty salary and research budgets in exchange for spending a significant amount of time in Singapore and signing the intellectual property they produced over to the Singaporean government. Some faculty who considered participating jokingly called the incentives “danger pay” but that joke doesn’t seem funny to me anymore.
Just last week, while attending the annual conference of information schools in Texas, a colleague stood up and pitched the faculty attendees to consider the possibility of research funding via the Singaporean government instead of through our usual funders. If we went with Singapore, our grant amounts would be 2x to 5x more.
I had little sense that anything was at stake in Singapore’s periodic but insistent appearance in my American professional life until this week’s revelation that Prof. Cherian George was denied tenure there at NTU. Yes, when I visited the country in 2007 all of the Westerners joked about the official ban on chewing gum. Someone nervously pointed out to me that possession of 15 grams of a controlled substance will get you mandatory death by hanging. But research collaboration with Singapore seemed to be a great opportunity.
The case of Prof. Cherian George has made me revise my opinion, and I suggest you do as well. The case poses the question: what does it take for an academic there to incur the wrath of the government? The answer is remarkably little.
In 2005 George published an editorial in the Straits-Times explaining some of the basic political philosophy of Hannah Arendt. When I found out it likely played a role in George’s firing I read it expecting a fiery polemic. It reads… like an editorial explaining some of the basic political philosophy of Hannah Arendt.
Arendt was a genius and yes, she was no friend to oppressive regimes. (She famously wrote: “To substitute violence for power can bring victory, but the price is very high; for it is not only paid by the vanquished but it is also paid by the victor.”) If this is the kind of writing the rulers of Singapore consider dangerous, a liberal education there is simply impossible, as is a modern university. George’s editorial received a direct rebuke from the Prime Minister’s office.
Prof. George is a distinguished, productive, and well-respected scholar with degrees from Cambridge, Columbia, and Stanford who has repeatedly asserted that Singapore should abide by international standards of human rights, and this latter point was his downfall. As a researcher working in the same field I can say that his research record is exemplary. It is beyond question.
In 2009, George was promoted to associate professor, told that he had met all of the academic requirements for tenure, but that his tenure had been blocked by the board of trustees for what the university told him were “non-academic factors.” George reported that in a 2009 meeting the president of the university asked him to explain what reasons the government might have to block his tenure. Last year George was asked to re-apply for tenure. It has just been denied. This is supposedly on the basis of his “research and teaching,” but this is an outrageous falsehood.
In fact, the claim is so outrageous that protests against his firing are being led by his external tenure reviewers. (At least, those based in countries that have protections for the freedom of expression.) George is an academic “superstar” according to external reviewer Prof. Karin Wahl-Jorgensen at Cardiff University in the UK, and the case for tenure was “watertight.” Prof. Philip Howard at the University of Washington, a fellow of the Center for Technology Policy at Princeton and another external reviewer, writes in protest that George’s career is being “derailed by the political elites” in Singapore. I agree.
The George case is important for all American academics. The dire financial situation at the University of Illinois made lucrative research deals with authoritarian governments more attractive, and these sorts of collaborations have already been covered extensively in the Western press. I see now that this coverage has missed the mark. It has emphasized the growing trend of international campuses and the reliance on international money in American higher ed, but the coverage has failed to specify the sophisticated Singaporean higher education strategy of targeted bribery and the Singaporean danger to freedom in the American academy.
For instance, extensive media coverage of controversial Yale-N.U.S., “Singapore’s first liberal arts college” and a project of Yale University, focused on the threat to student freedoms.
As a New York Times article puts it, quoting Ravinder Sidhu, “The main issue is whether students at the Yale-N.U.S. College will be able to engage in all of the activities associated with an education in the humanities — freedom of thought, the cultivation of the imagination, the ability to think critically about the arguments offered by those in authority, and the ability to fashion arguments and dissent in a civil manner.”
The important problem above is framed as: When Yale-N.U.S. teaches Arendt, will the students be able to talk about it? But I predict that the problem may never come up.
Student freedom of expression is indeed foundational but this coverage leaves unmentioned the threat that these institutional arrangements are placing on the freedom of research and teaching. It leaves unmentioned the serious risks that any American academic takes when engaging in a Singaporean venture.
What if you went to Singapore and accidentally let it slip that you thought human rights were a good idea? It is so clean and nice there, it’s easy not to notice that Singapore’s government is (I’ve just noticed) grouped with comparable Liberia, Palestine, Georgia, and Haiti by The Economist’s “Democracy Index.”
If your money has been doubled presumably that takes the sting off. One defense of Yale-N.U.S. was that engagement with countries like China and Haiti have generally been a good thing for Western institutions and the countries involved. But China and Haiti do not typically pay well.
When I mentioned to a colleague that I was writing this, he shared the story of 75-year-old Alan Shadrake, an author and British citizen who wrote a book critical of the Singaporean justice system and its use of the death penalty. When visiting Singapore for a book launch in 2010, Shadrake was arrested for defamation and the offense of “scandalizing the court system” (a Singaporean offense). He was found guilty and jailed, despite the protests of Amnesty International. My colleague mentioned that after I publish this article I should not travel to Singapore again.
Yet I’d like to go back. I found Singapore to be a wonderful place. I’m a fan of international collaboration in higher education and I have many collaborators in Singapore. I want to stand in support of my colleagues – the faculty and students who have been overruled by the government in the case of Prof. Cherian George.
As an American academic, I think the best way to support Singaporeans now is to withdraw from any research collaboration involving the Singaporean government. We should not host international research conferences in Singapore. Stay out of Singapore until it is clear that quoting Arendt won’t get you fired (or jailed). Let’s hope that day will come soon.
(This was cross-posted to Multicast.)