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18 Jun 2019

Reflecting on the Ethics of Data Infrastructures

 “We’re the bridge builders in the brave new world of data,” the president of RDA mentioned as part of her opening remarks.  If RDA community members are the bridge builders, it is important to be cognizant and aware of what is being built – by design – into these systems. The keynote at the RDA plenary 13, Dr. Julia Stoyanovich highlighted the multiple layers embedded in the increasingly popular discussion about the in-built biases in algorithms and machine learning. Is it that there is statistical bias in the model, societal bias in the data, or is it in fact the world is “incorrect”?

From Mitchell, Shira, Eric Potash, and Solon Barocas. 2018. “Prediction-Based Decisions and Fairness: A Catalogue of Choices, Assumptions, and Definitions.” ArXiv:1811.07867 [Stat], November.

How do we ensure that the socio-technical infrastructures that facilitate research work are in line with our values and also reflect the world “as it could and should be”? I was happy to find and participate in some of these conversations at RDA through the Ethics and Social Aspects of Data Interest Group and Empirical Humanities Metadata Working Group. Ethics are not only articulated in IRBs and project proposals; ethics are demonstrated in data practices, in publication venues, and in decisions about whether or not we support the companies involved in scholarly production. Following RDA 13, I emerged with a sense that the challenges are clear. We are all constrained by time, funding, deadlines, and hierarchies of power within the academy and the scholarly publishing world. Yet scholars concerned with the practices of science around the world – even beyond the explicit fields of Open Data or Open Science -- must get involved in ongoing work to rethink how scholarly infrastructures can be decolonized and decentralized for greater equity in knowledge production.

My participation at RDA 13 supported me in several ways. First, it facilitated the building of new relationships with early and senior career scholars interested and working on Open Research Data. Meeting other emerging scholars supported by Whole Tale like Dr. Christina Oré with whom I share overlapping research interests was particularly special. Overall, my experience, new knowledge and relationships from the RDA 13 plenary have contributed to my growth as a scholar of data cultures and infrastructures in Nairobi. The conference further strengthened my commitment to public data capacity including non-commercial data infrastructures to support the sharing and stewarding of research data and I look forward to continuing to participate.

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