Democratizing Open Data – a need for Narrative Red Teaming?

via Todd Richmond

Los Angeles has partnered with Esri to make public large amounts of city data – everything from 311 issues to demographic data. StateScoop writes about it here, the site is here. The world is increasingly awash in data, and more can lead to positive outcomes. But that isn’t necessarily always the case, and invariably with any new technology capability, unintended consequences need to be assessed, ideally before something gets deployed.

The TNL ran a hackathon last year looking at ethical and equity issues related to Covid 19 data dashboards. One of the areas of interest was “missing data” – what populations aren’t being counted and for what reasons? The Covid 19 data dashboard was not designed to be publicly available, so worries about it being weaponized were lower than fully open platforms. The “Know Your Community” platform has a goal of “democratized data”, so it is public and designed to be engaged with and shared. Transparency and and informed public has tremendous upsides. But unintended consequences abound for any technology platform, and getting ahead of the issues usually is preferable to a surprise headline in the Times.

The concept of Red Teaming has been around for a long time – essentially you get someone (or some group) to play the adversarial role, and often provides insights into weaknesses or possible exploitation angles for a given plan, system, or capability. In this case, the goal is a variation on the theme. Narrative Red Teaming (NRT) focuses on ways that data and presentation platforms can be used to reinforce false or toxic stories, particularly as spread through social media. To do effective NRT, participants on the red team need expertise in a couple of different areas – the subject matter (in this case governance and local issues), data science/visualization, and narrative. This type of confluence is exactly what the Tech + Narrative Lab was designed to foster.

Look for more work on NRT in the near future.

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