Category: Data Storytelling

Kids and Privacy Online at CSCW 2018

How do elementary school-aged children conceptualize privacy and security online? Below I share findings and recommendations from a paper I wrote with co-authors Shalmali Naik, Utkarsha Devkar, Marshini Chetty, Tammy Clegg, and Jessica Vitak. I’ll present this paper at the 2018 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (CSCW).

What did we do? Children under age 12 increasingly go online, but few studies examine how children perceive and address privacy and security concerns. Using a privacy framework known as contextual integrity to guide our analysis, we interviewed children and their parents to understand how children conceptualize privacy and security online, what strategies they use to address any risks they perceive, and how their parents support them when it comes to privacy and security online.

How did we do it? We interviewed 26 children ages 5-11 and 23 parents from 18 families in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. We also walked through a series of hypothetical scenarios with children, which we framed as a game. For example, we asked children how they imagined another child would respond when receiving a message from an unknown person online.

What did we find? Children recognized how some components of privacy and security play out online, but those ages 5-7 had gaps in their knowledge. For example, younger children did not seem to recognize that sharing information online makes it visible in ways that differ from sharing information face-to-face. Children largely relied on their parents for support, but parents generally did not feel their children were exposed to privacy and security concerns. They felt such concerns would arise when children were older, had their own smartphones, and spent more time on social media.

What are the implications of this work? As the lines between offline and online increasingly blur, it is important for everyone, including children, to recognize (and remember) that use of smartphones, tablets, laptops, and in-home digital assistants can raise privacy and security concerns. Children absorb some lessons through everyday use of these devices, but parents have an opportunity to scaffold their children’s learning. Younger children may also be more willing to accept advice from their parents compared to teenagers. Parents would benefit from the creation of educational resources or apps that focus on teaching these concepts to younger children. The paper explains how the contextual integrity framework can inform the development of such resources.

Read the CSCW 2018 paper for more details!

Parts of this entry were cross-posted on the blogs of UMD’s Privacy Education and Research Laboratory (PEARL) and Princeton HCI.

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My Mission

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Image by Markus Spiske/Flickr

When I was 13 or 14, my parents gave me “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens” by Sean Covey for Christmas. I devoured the book, re-reading it for the next several years. It was the first book in which I highlighted, dog-eared, and wrote notes directly on the pages.

Habit 2 encouraged readers to write a personal mission statement. I loved the idea but never wrote anything of consequence. Now, having accumulated several more years of life experience, I feel more equipped to write that statement.

The sentiment of my mission coalesced largely over the past six years. The transition from college to work to graduate school to now was difficult and enlightening. I finally have a sense of what I want to accomplish, yet I feel secure enough with myself to accept that may evolve.

So, what’s my mission?

I examine the forces that shape our lives and share that knowledge with the public.

This mission highlights what fascinates me and what I want to do with that knowledge. I am a writer, researcher, and storyteller at heart, and I aspire to write a book one day. In the interest of focusing on systems rather than goals, I aim to write pieces that people can point to and say, “I learned something from that.”

My professional and amateur interests span astronomy, psychology, Internet studies, and history — disparate disciplines bound by a common thread of humanity.

Like many people, I’m struck with awe every time I look up at the night sky. So much exists out there, and while science has enabled us to learn a tremendous amount about what’s up there, it’s impossible (for now) to travel across light years or stand on the event horizon of a black hole. So, why does astronomy matter?

Because every particle that makes up every human being on the planet comes from the stars in that sky. The universe began with hydrogen, a smattering of helium and a smidgen of lithium. All other elements in the periodic table, including the carbon that forms the basis of life as we know it, emerged from nuclear fusion occurring in the cores of stars and in the aftermath of star explosions. Everything that’s inside you comes from up there.

What goes on inside us, particularly our brains, also captivates me. While we don’t have to think about telling our body to breathe air, pump blood, or digest food, our thoughts drive so much of our behavior. And while thought processes may feel automatic, they’re malleable and well within our control. Figuring out how to change the way we think and implementing those changes isn’t easy. But I take comfort in the paradoxical notion that while I can’t control anything outside my own mind, taking control of my own mind grants me boundless potential to construct a fulfilling life.

Nowadays, that life is not just experienced; it is increasingly documented by digital technology that creeps deeper into our daily lives. Personal and sensitive communications, ranging from text messages to financial transactions to data points about our physical activities flow through privately owned networks and sit on servers operated by companies that have wide latitude to use that data as they see fit. We as individuals must ensure that this emerging ecosystem of networked digital technology benefits, rather than restricts, us.

To do so, I think it’s important to put this moment in historical context. The human race has advanced tremendously over its existence on this planet. Look around you. So much of what you see and feel was designed or affected by humans. Buildings, roads, cars, books, families, music, math, elections, and the disease-resistant tomatoes in your fridge are the result of human activity.

Even if you’re sitting in middle of an ocean, forest, desert, or glacier, the device (or perhaps piece of paper) on which you’re reading these words was invented by humans. The language you’re reading right now, the shapes of the letters and the grammatical rules that render these words meaningful were developed by humans.

This point reverberated while I recently read Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City. As author Russell Shorto described how the philosopher Baruch Spinoza first posited that church and state could exist as separate entities, it hit me in my gut that values, principles, and norms change. That there was a time when people truly believed that dark-skinned humans were inferior. That 100 years ago, women in the United States had no right to vote. That the notion of “this is just how things are” is simply not true. History is not facts and timelines; history is about moments and people who seize those moments and make them matter. History is learning how people have harnessed their potential and applying those lessons to the present day.

As I move through life, I want to understand more about these forces, the physical, internal, societal, and historical forces that have brought me, you, and those around us to this particular moment in time. And if in that process, I say something that makes you go, “Hmm, I never thought of that,” well then, mission accomplished.

This post also appears on Medium.

Earn a Graduate Degree and Write a Thesis: Check

Last week, check marks sprouted next to two items on my bucket list: earn a graduate degree and complete an individual thesis.

Before embarking on both journeys, I knew I loved to research and write. I felt like my mind, fascinated by such topics as journalism, astronomy, neuroscience, and colonial-era U.S. history, embodied the aphorism that a journalist’s expertise is a mile wide and an inch deep. Two years after becoming a student the University of Michigan School of Information, I have discovered where I want to go deep.

I want to understand how digital technology affects our relationships with ourselves, our significant others, our kids, our parents, our friends (and Friends), our governments, our devices, and the companies that manufacture those devices and harvest the data they so dutifully collect.

I’m a Millennial. I hand-wrote book reports in elementary school and made science projects out of cardboard and foam. My family bought a computer when I was nine years old, and I began typing my school assignments because tapping the keys was more fun than scrawling the pencil across the page. As a high schooler I conversed with friends over AIM; as a college student I was among the first generation to latch my social life to Facebook. I studied journalism as an undergraduate and watched digital technology pull the rug out of that industry right as I graduated and faced “the real world.”

I cannot imagine my life without digital technology. But I also wonder whether and how it is changing the way we live. Excited by our ability to capture, store, and disseminate large amounts of data, I designed my own curriculum in data storytelling to learn the basics of programming and design and apply those skills to the art of storytelling. The idea that people could use data to discover personal information (e.g., someone’s pregnancy) captivated me.

This became the basis for my thesis research in which I interviewed new mothers about their decisions to post baby pictures on Facebook. I had begun seeing baby pictures on my own Facebook News Feed, and I was curious whether the question of what to post and not post online entered new mothers’ minds.

As I was wrapping up one research interview a few months ago, the participant asked what I was studying.

“Data storytelling,” I replied, launching into my well-rehearsed, 30-second definition of this field of study.

“I feel like Facebook is the definition of data storytelling,” she said. “I am telling my life story in the way that I want to,…And it’s all data…That’s, like, the perfect thesis for what you’re studying.”

Her statement comforted me because I, for some reason, had equated data storytelling to working with numbers. But data is data, whether words or numbers. My thesis distilled more than 400 pages of interview transcripts into a story about what types of pictures new mothers do and don’t post online as well as what factors influence their decision.

The most rewarding aspect of completing this degree and this thesis has been hearing people’s enthusiasm and encouragement when I tell them what I’m doing. It is so exciting to believe you’re helping to make sense of what feels like a rapidly changing world, but also to realize that while the circumstances in which you’re asking the questions may be changing, the questions themselves are timeless. In the case of my thesis, taking baby pictures is nothing new, but broadcasting them to an audience of hundreds is.

One of my professors quoted a colleague of hers as saying, “Graduate school was when they stopped asking me the questions they already know the answers to.” In my time at UMSI, I’ve helped to answer some of those unanswered questions. I’m leaving campus with a better sense of what questions I want to ask of the world moving forward.

#MGoBlue  #MGoGrad

A Citation Network of Wikipedia’s Featured Articles

Type an unfamiliar term into Google, and chances are your quest for answers will cross paths with Wikipedia. With more than 470 million unique monthly visitors as of February 2012, the world’s free encyclopedia has become a popular source of information. Our team (Jackie Cohen, Priya Kumar, and Florence Lee) used network principles to explore where Wikipedia gets its information.

Our analysis suggests that Wikipedia’s best articles cite similar sources. Why is this important? Information about the most frequently cited domains may give Wikipedia editors a good starting point to improve articles that need additional references.

We reviewed the citation network of Wikipedia’s English-language featured articles to discover which categories of articles shared similar citation sources, or domains. Wikipedia organizes its more than 4,200 featured articles into 44 categories; we found that every pair of categories shares at least one domain, creating a completely connected network.

In the network graph (Figure 1), each category is a node. If two categories share at least one domain, an edge appears between them. Since every category pair shares at least one domain, each node shares an edge to every other node. The graph has 44 nodes and 946 edges.

Figure 1: Citation Network of English-Language Wikipedia Featured Articles

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But the mere existence of an edge doesn’t tell us about the strength of the relationship, or the number of shared domains, between two categories. The two categories could share one domain or hundreds. We assigned weights to the edges to determine which pairs share more domains than others.

First, we determined how many shared domains existed in the entire network. If a domain appeared in articles of at least two categories, we considered it a shared domain. For example, at least one Wikipedia article in the biology category cited an nytimes.com link, and at least one Wikipedia article in the law category also cited an nytimes.com link. So we added nytimes.com to the list of shared domains. Overall, we found 1,103 shared domains in the network.

We calculated edge weights by dividing the number of shared domains between a category pair by the total number of shared domains in the network. For example, biology and law shared 14 domains, so the pair’s edge weight was 0.0127 (14 divided by 1,103).

The distribution of edge weights appears to be a power law distribution (Figure 2). But graphing the distribution on a log-log scale (Figure 3) shows a curved line. Despite the linear distribution’s long tail, it doesn’t appear to be a true power law distribution.

Figure 2: Edge Weight Distribution – Linear Scale      Figure 3: Edge Weight Distribution – Log-Log Scale

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We scaled the edges on an RGB spectrum. The vast majority of category pairs cite fewer than five percent of the shared domains, which is why thick cables of blue traverse the network graph in Figure 1. The occasional turquoise edges represent the pairs that cite more than five percent of shared domains.

The pairs that share the most domains are:

  1. Politics and Government Biographies &  Religion, Mysticism, and Mythology (223 shared domains; 0.2022 edge weight)
  2. Physics and Astronomy & Physics and Astronomy Biographies (159 shared domains; 0.1442 edge weight)
  3. Physics and Astronomy & Religion, Mysticism, and Mythology (150 shared domains; 0.1360 edge weight)

The second pair feels intuitive. We scratched our heads at the first pair and found the third pair interesting, given that the two categories often appear on different sides of various public debates. Some of the shared domains between this pair, such as slate.com, jstor.org, and christianitytoday.com, were unsurprising, but we did notice several unexpected shared domains in this pair, including brooklynvegan.com and vulture.com.

Figure 2 depicts an elbow around the edge weight of 4.6 percent. If we use this as a threshold to create the network, that is, only draw an edge if its weight is higher than 0.046, the network becomes far less connected (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Citation Network with an Edge Weight Threshold of 4.6 Percent

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We also examined the domains themselves. The three most popular shared domains were:

The widespread citation of these domains aligns with Wikipedia’s encyclopedic nature; these sites are gateways into vast swaths of digitally recorded information and knowledge.

Considering the least popular domains, 601 domains were only shared between one category pair. Removing those domains from the graph only deleted four edges, since most category pairs share more than one domain. This suggests that edge weight is a better threshold for examining the relationships in this network than domain distribution.

While typical network characteristics such as centrality measures, community structures, or diffusion were not relevant in the completely connected network, examining edge weights yielded interesting findings. Future work could examine network characteristics of the thresholded graph as well as consider whether patterns exist in the way various category pairs cite different domain types (e.g., journalism, scholarly, personal blogs, etc).

Project Code: Available here

The project can be replicated by running: grab_data.py, manage_data.py, data_counts.py. The first two files collect and parse the data we describe above. The data_counts.py file contains all the network manipulation, and, if you download the entire repository, can be run immediately (the repository includes the results from the former two files). This last file contains comments that explain where in the code we determined different network metrics and examined aspects of our network. This includes where we implemented edge weight thresholding (Figure 1, Figure 4) and where we conducted Pythonic investigations into whether the edge weight distribution was a power law distribution.

Data Storytelling: A Definition?

Data storytelling and storytelling with data: is there a difference? A fellow conference attendee posed this question to me during last month’s Tapestry Conference in Annapolis. After thinking for a moment, I responded that for me, the difference lay in the process.

I envision data storytelling as when you’re looking at data and want to know, “What is this data trying to tell me?” Storytelling with data for me is where you have a story in mind and seek data to substantiate it. Data storytelling feels more quantitative; I imagine needing to collect, clean, manipulate, and analyze the data before crafting the story. Storytelling with data, however, feels more fluid, with the story and the data coming together concurrently.

I acknowledge this may be complete bunk, and I welcome thoughts and critiques from others. At the end of the day, defining data storytelling may be less important than actually doing it. But after attending the second Tapestry Conference on data storytelling, I’m left itching for a framework, or at least continued conversation. Data storytelling is a beautiful concept, applicable across many domains: journalism, academia, technology development, business, advocacy, public policy. It’s also in its infancy, and defining it might force structure on a realm that needs exploration and freedom.

That doesn’t mean we should avoid descriptions of what constitutes good data storytelling. Journalist and infographics professor Alberto Cairo offered a starting point in his keynote (slides) on visualization for communication as “the insightful art.” Visualization for general audiences, he said, should be:

1. Truthful: Present your best understanding of the truth.
2. Functional: Choose perceptual elements (e.g., color, font) that help your audience understand what you want to convey.
3. BeautIful: Please the senses of your reader.
4. Insightful: Help your reader understand the main point; explain what is surprising, relevant, or interesting about the data.
5. Enlightening: Change someone’s mind for the better.

Personally, I would put “beautiful” last, not because it’s unimportant, but because for me, conveying information comprises the core of data storytelling.

Cairo encouraged us to be evidence-driven communicators, not activists. This is 100 percent true for journalists. However, activists who want to tell their story should feel welcome to adopt the principles of data storytelling. I agree that infographics should not massage data or mislead readers. But, as my aforementioned definition suggests, it’s possible for the story to precede the data.

Jock Mackinlay, researcher and Tableau Software VP, offered one check against misguided data storytelling: provide raw data with visualizations. Doing so can hook readers into your visualization, letting them explore it for themselves. It also validates the author and can promote conversation, enabling others to carry analysis further.

The importance of data literacy underpinned both presentations. Readers are going to see infographics from journalists and marketers, and they need to know how to differentiate them. Raw data provides the audience with a powerful tool, but only if the audience itself feels capable and empowered to take that data and run with it. Plenty of people do feel this way, and I hope that future Tapestry conferences will help us think of ways to build data literacy in our schools and workplaces so that even more people do.

Stay tuned for more Tapestry Conference posts.

Data Storytelling in Novel Form

If information schools had a first book program, I’ve found their next selection: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. The novel includes something for all information professionals: dusty books, Google’s book scanner, typefaces, time series visualizations, Ruby, dial-up Internet, Hadoop, Turkers, and an epic quest.

Upon completing my own epic semester of coding, event planning, and thesis research, I longed to lose myself in a story. I don’t read much fiction nowadays and didn’t care for an automated Amazon recommendation, so a few weeks ago I wandered into Ann Arbor’s newest bookstore, Literati, in search of human guidance.

The handwritten note did me in. Folded white papers scattered about the shelves and among the tabletop piles of books offered suggestions from the bookstore staff. Handwritten suggestions. Scrawled in pen, a refreshing reminder that these recommendations came from people who read the books and took the time to explain why they were worth your eyes.

The one tucked into the stack of “Mr Penumbra’s” said something along the lines of, If you like Google, you’ll like this book. “Well,” I thought, “I’m studying what Google does, is, and means in today’s society, so sure, I’ll pick this one up.” Ever the nerd, even in leisure.

The story centers on Clay Jannon, a recently unemployed art school graduate who lives in San Francisco and happens upon a bookstore in need of a clerk. But the bookstore loans more books than it sells, and the books it loans contain symbols, not words. Thus begins the epic quest, which at its climax includes the line, “We need James Bond with a library science degree,” (What iSchool reading group wouldn’t swoon over a book saying that?)

The story extends beyond the book; it includes an accompanying ebook “short” and a Twitter account. The physical book even glows in the dark (which is quite a novelty when you’re half-asleep and halfway through finals). So, take your mind off the cold (it’s -15 degrees F outside as I write this), wander into the world of Mr. Penumbra, and enjoy this technology-fueled homage to the printed word.

P.S. If anyone at UMSI is reading this, the author Robin Sloan is a Michigan native. We are meant to have a connection with this book…

Keep Your Sanity While Learning to Code

Learn to code? The question populated headlines this year. The Atlantic‘s Olga Khazan set journalists a-Twitter after pronouncing that journalism schools should not require students to “learn code.” She insisted her opposition extended to HTML and CSS, not data journalism, data analysis, or data visualization, making her post’s headline feel misleading given that those can require learning code.

Sean Mussenden of the American Journalism Review concisely expressed what I thought when reading Khazan’s piece. I fact-checked AJR articles in college, and tricking my brain to think I was fact-checking is the only thing that saved me from hurling a rock at my laptop while coding.

Four months ago I was a coding newbie. My crowning achievement was a Python script that determined whether a given string of text was of Tweet-able length. By December, I had cleaned and manipulated datasets in Python, created heat maps and scree plots in R, designed map visualizations in D3, and analyzed my Facebook and Twitter data. I needed the structure and graded homework assignments that graduate school courses in data manipulation, exploratory data analysis, and information visualization offered, but I wouldn’t have survived those classes without the wealth of resources on the Interwebz. These lessons I absorbed may help you meet your code-learning resolutions.

1. Find a tutorial that works for you

Free online tutorials abound. Shop around, take what works, and leave what doesn’t. I’m not suggesting giving up at the first sign of difficulty. Coding is hard, frustrating, tedious, and time-consuming. But it won’t always be. Rewards, even just the personal satisfaction of overcoming challenges, await those patient enough to try. Sink your time into a tutorial that fits your learning style and avoid wasting time on one that doesn’t. Last January I enrolled in a Coursera class on data analysis in R. The description said a programming background was helpful but not required. A week into the course, it was clear: a programming background was definitely required. I couldn’t afford to spend 10 hours on assignments I didn’t understand, so I stopped.

This September, I needed a crash course on Python. I had one week to complete a homework assignment that incorporated everything I learned in a year of basic coding courses. My lifesaver: Learn Python the Hard Way. Just like learning to write the alphabet by tracing over letters, this tutorial teaches the logic of coding by having you type code that’s in front of you. Another assignment required programming in D3, but I had no knowledge of JavaScript. Scott Murray’s D3 tutorials on Aligned Left and his O’Reilly book (which comes with sample files) were a life raft.

2. Google is your friend

Tutorials won’t give you all the information you need, but Google can help. Paste your error message into the search bar to get a sense of what went wrong. Or, (and I found this more effective), type what you’re trying to accomplish. Even the craziest phrase (“after splitting elements in lines in python, keep elements together in for loop”) will get you somewhere. People often share snippets of code on forums like Stack Overflow. Test their code on your machine and see what happens. Debugging is a random walk, requiring you to chase links and try several strategies before that glorious moment when the code finally listens to you. Don’t worry. You’re learning even when you’re doing it wrong.

3. But people are your best friend

I tweeted my frustration with the Coursera class last January. To my surprise, digital storyteller Amanda Hickman responded to my tweets and set up a Tumblr to walk me through the basics of R Studio. People want to help, and their help will get you through the frustration of learning to code. This semester I saw the graduate student instructor nearly every week during office hours, bringing him the specific or conceptual questions that tutorials and Google couldn’t explain me. When you get stuck, reach out. Ask that cousin who works in IT to help you debug something. Post on social media that you’re looking for help. Use Meetup to find fellow coders with whom you can meet face-to-face. Find groups like PyLadies (for Python) and go to their meetings. Don’t let impostor syndrome, or the feeling that you’re not really a “coder” stop you. You are a coder.

4. Take breaks

My first coding professor said, “Don’t spend hours on a coding problem. Take a break and return when your mind is fresh.” LISTEN TO HIM. More than once, I sunk six or seven hours trying to debug code, only to collapse into bed and then solve the problem within an hour the next morning. When coding threatens to consume your life (or unleash dormant violent tendencies),  say, “Eff this for now” and take a well-deserved break.

Happy coding!

Google Glass: Not Scary, Worth Discussing

Instantaneous photographs…have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life; and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that ‘what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.’

Such is our fear of Google Glass, right? Taking pictures everywhere, sharing information with everyone, no more keeping secrets. But the above quote predates Glass by 123 years. Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis penned these words shortly after the Kodak camera arrived.

I tried Glass yesterday, and I give Google one thing: Glass isn’t scary (yet). Users can’t do anything with Google Glass they can’t already do with a smartphone. Google Glass just lets people do some of the same things hands-free. A tap to the device’s right arm activates Glass. A small display appears above the right eye, not in the line of sight. It shows the time and the activation command, “OK Glass.” Speak these magic words and a menu with four options appears: Google, take a picture, look up directions, and record a video. I used the device on a guest account, so I couldn’t send emails/text messages or post information to social networks.

I’m impressed with the technology. Voice recognition could use some work, but a Google staffer said you hear the device not from airwaves entering your ear, but vibrations entering your skull. I wouldn’t buy Glass because I see no need for it. It’s meant to let you live life assured that you won’t miss anything important, but I’ve no need for that much convenience or connection.

Regardless, I hope the paranoia around it continues. Not because Glass is bad, but because seeing a camera on someone else’s face reminds us the default settings of information in society have shifted. This isn’t new (see above quote), but the pace at which technology has advanced means we can do a lot more with the information we collect. How do we as a society feel about that? Google Glass can’t post a running first-person video feed of your life to the Web (yet). But that which we fear already exists. Someone might record video of you and post it online without you realizing. Local governments have set up security cameras in parks. And the police use facial recognition software to mine enormous databases of images. So, let’s keep voicing our concern over recording and sharing photos and videos. Just don’t pretend it’s all Glass’s fault.

The Value of Social Network Sites

I became a curmudgeon way before my time. For about five years, I rode the social media skepticism wagon. I had Facebook and Twitter accounts but used them sparsely. My concern stemmed from the privacy implications of posting so much information about ourselves online. I also felt web-mediated communication took people away from lively, meandering face-to-face or telephone conversations, away from the world around them. Arab media researcher Donatella Della Ratta captured this anti-screen sentiment in a different context — crisis reporting via social media.

“If we can document and verify things remotely, only using social media, like Andy [Carvin] and Eliot [Higgins] do, well then why spending [sic] so many years and hours and hours of hard study to understand a language, a culture?”

Della Ratta has a point. Staring at a screen cannot replace living a life. But we cannot discount the value that social network sites bring to our lives. Last fall I began using Twitter more often. The more I used it, the more I gained. I got to know people I’d briefly spoken to in person. I interacted with new people. If nothing else, logging on guaranteed me a few interesting articles to read.

From Cliff Lampe’s e-Communities course, I learned about the deep human need that online connection fulfills. I realized that online communication sometimes offers greater benefit than face-to-face communication. Between readings, lectures, and analysis of various online communities, I gained respect for social network sites.

A recent conversation at work cemented my belief in the value of online interaction, and it involved the same Donatella Della Ratta. She spoke to a group of interns and staff about her current research on the role of memes in the Syrian conflict. Fellow intern Leigh Graham related what Della Ratta saw in Syria to her own fieldwork and Saudi Arabia. As they exchanged thoughts, this hit me: I live in a place where I’m free to go wherever I want, talk to whomever I want, and say whatever I want. I can wake up at 4 a.m., meet a friend at 7-11, and chat over slurpees. I wouldn’t, but I can. This isn’t always the case in other parts of the world.

When people cannot gather publicly because war ravages the public space around them or their government outright forbids it, they turn to the Web. Young people in Gaza are tech-savvy because they have nothing else to do with their time, Della Ratta said. Saudi Arabians share more information online than anyone else in the world, which makes sense given the country’s 13 million women live with their independence severely constrained, Graham explained. Sites such as Facebook allow people to communicate with others without leaving the house.

As the Prism news reminds us, sites such as Facebook also operate under the laws of the United States. This plus the fact that online communication means so much to so many people underscores our need for a national, public debate about how other people, whether government officials or corporate vice presidents, use our data. As Rebecca MacKinnon wrote in “Consent of the Networked,” what people in charge believe matters:

“Critics are concerned that Facebook’s core ideology — that all people should be transparent and public about their online identity and social relationships — is the product of a corporate culture based on the life experiences of relatively sheltered and affluent Americans who may be well intentioned but have never experienced genuine social, political, religious, or sexual vulnerability.”

Practically speaking, we can’t abandon the Internet. We as citizens must talk about about how much power over our data we want to give the government or private companies. The answer to these questions isn’t get off Facebook or stop sending email. As I realized this year and during this conversation, we cannot ignore the tremendous benefits that connection on social network sites offers.

Summer Plans: Researching Online Freedom of Expression

Though my email address ends with @umich.edu, all correspondence flows through a Gmail inbox. My appointments are on a Google Calendar, and my fellow students and I routinely use Google Docs to keep track of group project information. The university and Google partnered in October, 2011.

I like Google products. Gmail is the best email client I’ve used, Google Calendar is what pried me away from paper planners, and I’m drafting this post in Google Docs. In exchange for free access to its products, Google can mine all the content I give it. This unsettles me, but I also have no other choice, at least when it comes to my university-related communication technology needs.

I bring up Google not to debate the advantages and disadvantages of its agreement with the university, but to illustrate a point Rebecca MacKinnon articulates in her book, Consent of the Networked:

“Internet-related companies are even more powerful because not only do they create and sell products, but they also provide and shape the digital spaces upon which citizens increasingly depend (p. 11)…The lives of people around the world…are increasingly shaped by programmers, engineers, and corporate executives for whom nobody ever voted and who are not accountable to the public interest in any way (p. xxii).”

While the United States is by no means innocent of pressuring companies and shaping laws that limit its citizens’ freedom online, I write this, send email, post on Facebook, and Tweet without fear that someone will persecute me for what I say. For this I am immensely grateful. MacKinnon writes of the Russian secret service obtaining financial records of those who donated money to a political blogger, the Chinese government forcing tech company employees to divulge personal information, including emails, of users, and the Iranian regime torturing people for their Gmail and Facebook passwords.

Internet companies collect and retain giant amounts of data about us. They can mine it,  governments can force companies to share it, and black hat hackers can decide they want a look, too. As I write this, the Washington Post’s homepage includes an article about a Chinese hack into Google’s database of accounts the FBI flagged for surveillance. These stories are as much a part of data storytelling as combing through databases and developing apps. As I wrote in my post about policy, “Understanding what organizations do with data is as important as using data to present compelling stories.”

This summer, I will join the Berkman Center for Internet & Society as an intern. I will work on its suite of projects related to freedom of expression: Internet Monitor, Internet Robustness, and Herdict. Over the next few months, I hope my work will contribute, in some small way, to answering MacKinnon’s central question: “How do we make sure that people with power over our digital lives will not abuse that power” (p. xx).

What are the most critical Internet freedom issues you see in today’s society? Share them in the comments.