PERVADE Tackles Ethical Questions on Big Data Use

Oct 9, 2017

When signing up for Facebook, Twitter, and many other websites, users are often asked to agree to a companies’ “terms and conditions.” In many cases, this means allowing a company to use the information it gathers from using its platform, but it often doesn’t specify how that information will be used.

These collections of user information from companies, are often called big data sets. PERVADE – or the Pervasive Data Ethics for Computational Research – is a new project focused on researching some of the ethical quandaries presented by this type of information.

"Big Data is almost anything. A lot of times we think about social media data. But it's also transactional data. It could be from banks or insurance companies. It could be data from fitness trackers or your iPhone."

“Big Data is almost anything. A lot of times we think about social media data. But it’s also transactional data. It could be from banks or insurance companies. It could be data from fitness trackers or your iPhone. So, really, one of the key goals of the big data movement is to try to use as much data as possible to help make decisions and to predict things in the world,” explains Michael Zimmer, director of the Center for Information Policy Research at UWM.

The center is partnering with five other research institutions for PERVADE, which recently received a three million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation. The project hopes to answer some of the big ethical questions on how we use big data.

“One of the challenges in this area is that a lot of the research is being done by computer scientists or data scientists, who don’t have a long tradition of addressing ethical issues in their work,” Zimmer explains.

"One of the challenges in this area is that a lot of the research is being done by computer scientists or data scientists, who don't have a long tradition of addressing ethical issues in their work."

He continues, “One of the things I’ll be doing is trying to talk with and interview and survey, researchers in this domain. To get a sense of: How do they feel about the ethical implications? What kind of training have they had? What kind of steps might they be taking to deal with these challenges?”

The PERVADE project is taking a broader approach to understanding the ethical implications, according to Zimmer, by involving all stakeholders.

“This includes the researchers, the actual subjects whose data is being used, the ethical review boards at universities that might be doing this, the companies whose data is being used, and even policy-makers, and government agencies who might be trying to regulate this. We’re trying to bring everyone to the table so we can come up with useable solutions in this domain,” says Zimmer.