Symposium: Sabine Thuermel & Judith Simon, Ethics of Big Data: The Engineering of the “Not Yet”

Big data approaches are deployed in many sectors of contemporary life, such as the military, civil surveillance, the online economy, the workplace or the education and health systems. In public environments the engineering of the “not yet” is for instance employed to improve the public infrastructure using “smart city approaches” or to prevent potentially undesirable developments in the case of “predictive policing”.

While number crunching and statistical calculations form the basis of big data practices, it is in particular the temporality of data practices that is one of the most interesting features of big data and of central interest to our symposium. Big data practices aim at generating hypotheses about the future based on past or present data. However, these hypotheses do not merely provide predictions about the future, they also have an impact on the future when used to engineer the “not yet”.

In our interdisciplinary symposium, we aim to address this temporality of big data practices from multiple perspectives. The participants will give short kick-off presentations followed by a roundtable discussion.

Brent Mittelstadt

Affiliations:  University of Oxford, Oxford Internet Institute, St. Cross College
Bio:  Brent Mittelstadt is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford.  Since 2014 he has held a Junior Research Fellowship with St. Cross College.  His current work examines the feasibility of ethical auditing of machine learning algorithms and related rights to group privacy.   Prior to this he worked on the ‘Ethics of Biomedical Big Data’ project with Prof. Luciano Floridi to map the ethical landscape surrounding mining and sharing of biomedical and health-related ‘Big Data’ across research and commercial institutions. He has also conducted ethical foresight of emerging medical information and communication technologies, including personal health monitoring devices and ‘smart’ environments designed to support dementia care and ‘ageing at home’.  His research falls broadly within the philosophy and ethics of information, computer ethics and medical ethics.
Talk: The Duty of Group Privacy in Biomedical Big Data
Abstract: This talk will consider the case of reconceiving privacy in theoretical and legal domains as a concept applicable and enforceable to (ad hoc) groups, whose formation is inevitable in emerging Big Data analytics.  Group privacy is considered as a ‘third weight’ to balance individual privacy rights and social, commercial and epistemic benefits of biomedical data processing.

Wolfgang Pietsch

Affiliation: Munich Center for Technology in Society, Technische Universität München
Bio: Wolfgang Pietsch is a philosopher of science at the Munich Center for Technology in Society of Technical University Munich. His research concerns scientific method with a focus on fundamental concepts like causation or probability and with an interest in different contexts of application, e.g. in physics, the engineering sciences or more recently data-intensive science. He is vice chairman of the working group on philosophy of physics of the German Physical Society and was a Poiesis Fellow at the Institute for Public Knowledge of New York University.
Talk: Engineering Complex Phenomena using Big Data. Some Methodological Reflections
Abstract: In this talk it will be argued that the big data sets of the information age allow for the prediction and in particular the manipulation of complex phenomena. To this purpose, several methodological analogies between data-intensive science and the engineering sciences sketched, in particular concerning the role of causation, a methodology of parameter variation, and the reliance on evidence in terms of changing circumstances. The argument draws on a distinction once introduced by Pierre Duhem and in recent times forcefully defended by Nancy Cartwright between phenomenological and theoretical levels in scientific theories.

Gernot Rieder

Affiliation: IT University of Copenhagen
Bio: Gernot Rieder is a PhD fellow at the IT University of Copenhagen in the Technologies in Practice research group. His dissertation investigates the rise of Big Data in public policy, the history of the automated state, and the epistemological, social, and ethical implications of data-driven decision making. Other areas of interest include science funding and governance, scientometrics, and the politics of methods. Gernot has a background in Communications (BA), Media Studies (BA), and Science and Technology Studies (MA). He serves as an Assistant Editor for the SAGE journal “Big Data & Society” and was previously a member of the research project “Epistemic Trust in Socio-Technical Epistemic Systems” at the University of Vienna. Gernot specializes in actor-network theory and mixed-methods research.
Talk: To Know Ahead and Act Before: Reflections on the Use of Predictive Analytics in the Public Sector
Abstract: In an era marked by crisis and uncertainty, policy makers have shown interest in more anticipatory forms of governance, facilitated by analytical tools and techniques that promise to provide not just insight into past and present events, but foresight into what the future holds. Big Data-based predictive algorithms are meant to shift the focus from reactive measures to proactive prevention, from monitoring and responding to the continuous assessment of the ‘not yet’. This talk considers the increasingly central role of predictive analytics in many areas of public life, reflecting on the opportunities and benefits, but also the potential social, ethical, and epistemic pitfalls of an ever more data-driven society.

Judith Simon

Organiser and moderator of the symposium: Ethics of Big Data: The Engineering of the “Not Yet”
Affilliation: Associate Professor for Philosophy of Science and Technology – IT University Copenhagen
Bio: Judith Simon is Associate Professor for Philosophy of Science and Technology at the IT University Copenhagen and PI of the research project “Epistemic Trust in Socio-Technical Epistemic Systems” at the University of Vienna. Previously she was employed at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, the Institut Jean Nicod (CNRS/ENS) in Paris and the Research Center Jülich and has held visiting positions in the US (Stanford), Italy (Trento), and Spain (IIIA-CISC Barcelona). Judith Simon holds a PhD in philosophy from the University of Vienna and a MA in psychology from the Free University of Berlin. She serves as co-editor of the journals “Philosophy & Technology” and “Big Data & Society”. Her research interests include philosophy of computing, computer ethics, philosophy of science and technology, socio-technical epistemology, science and technology studies, technology assessment & values in design.

Sabine Thürmel

Organiser of the symposium: Ethics of Big Data: The Engineering of the “Not Yet”
Affiliation: Munich Center for Technology in Society, Technische Universität München
Bio: Sabine Thürmel is an independent researcher and lecturer at the Munich Center for Technology in Society of the of Technical University Munich (TUM). She has a background both in computer science (Ph.D. in Computer Science from TUM in 1989) and philosophy (Ph.D. in Philosophy of Science and Technology from TUM in 2013). Her interdisciplinary work on the foundations and effects of culture changing information technologies profits from her experience both in academia and industry. Current research interests include Big Data, autonomy and control in socio-technical systems, emergence and chance in agent-based simulations.
Talk: Responsible Innovation for Future Proactive Health and Wellbeing Systems
Abstract: Data mining and predictive analysis will be included for the optimization of individual behaviour and the optimization of the behaviour of a social system. Such social engineering may nudge the users towards social conformity. In order to engineer the “not yet” governance is embedded in these systems. Data power is exercised. Thus a responsible innovation process guiding the modelling and employment of such systems is essential.