Microsoft researcher calls for information literacy

People should be trained to watch for the misuse of data, Microsoft social researcher Danah Boyd argues

While governments and other organizations are stepping up efforts at providing more information for public consumption, they should also provide tools to allow people to interpret this data, argued a Microsoft social media researcher.

"Information is power, but interpretation is more powerful," said Danah Boyd, speaking at the at the O'Reilly Gov 2.0 Expo, being held this week in Washington, D.C. "We want this information out there. We want people to make informed decisions. But we also want to give them to tools to interpret what we see," she said.

Speaking before an audience of mostly government executives and supporting contractors, she had stated that it is not enough to provide information to the people -- as government agencies are doing through efforts like Data.gov and Data.Gov.UK -- because tools must also be provided to aid in the interpretation process.

"We need to think not just how we want to make data available but how to help people process it," she said. Such skills will not come about simply "because people have access to information," she said.

Without such tools, information can be misused.

As an example, Boyd pointed to the U.S. registries of sex offenders. Brought about by a 1996 U.S. federal law, nicknamed Megan's Law, states are allowed to compile public listings of names and addresses of convicted sex offenders within their jurisdictions. While such repositories have helped parents know if there are any pedophiles in their neighborhoods, they have also brought about a fair amount of misunderstanding, she said.

In many cases, the sex offenders are not pedophiles, but rather offenders who, at the time of their crimes, were barely legal adults who had intimate relations with partners not quite of legal age. The example Boyd used is of one 17-year-old girl who was convicted of having sex with someone a year younger. For these people, being on a registry has led to unjust public shame, she argued.

The problem doesn't lie with the registries themselves, but rather with "how people interpret" them, she said. While providing useful information to parents, such registries also "help people stay afraid and are also meant to encourage certain kinds of hateful feelings towards other citizens," she said..

As another example of data misuse, she pointed to a widely cited statistic from a 2006 study from the Crimes Against Children Research Center, which showed that one in seven minors are solicited online.

"Most people assume that one in seven minors are sexually solicited by adults," she said. But a closer analysis reveals a different picture. Over 90 percent of the solicitations were actually made by other minors or young adults, she said.

"When we use these numbers, as politicians and as members of the public, we have to be really careful with what we are saying," she said. "We use this information to generate fear."

Boyd said this practice of spinning information, or interpreting data that supports only a single view, will be done with increasing sophistication in the years to come. "Data will become something we will fight over again and again," she said. "Information is power. But spinning information is also a power."

As a result, people will have to become experts have in interpreting information, or develop what she calls information literacy, and government is in the unique position to help develop such skills, she said.

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