Lab NotesNotesReading Notes

Reading Notes : Cavoukian, Ann. A Primer on Metadata: Separating Fact from Fiction

About: Cavoukian, Ann. A Primer on Metadata: Separating Fact from Fiction (Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, Canada, 1973).

Cover of: Cavoukian, Ann. A Primer on Metadata: Separating Fact from Fiction (Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, Canada, 1973)

Tweets from Privacy by Design (@embedprivacy) signaled the publication of A Primer on Metadata: Separating Fact from Fiction (18 pages PDF document). As I am currently working on a related subject, I read it at once… and was disappointed. The actual primer on what is metadata is only two pages long, rather minimal, inaccurate and not quite convincing.

Metadata (formal definition):

Metadata is (…) essentially information about other information, in this case, relating to our communications.”

In this case : “Metadata is information generated by our communications devices and our communications service providers, as we use technologies like landline telephones, mobile phones, desktop computers, laptops, tablets or other computing devices.”

Cavoukian, 2013, p. 3

Metadata (descriptive definition) : Metadata includes information that reveals the time and duration of a communication, the particular devices, addresses, or numbers contacted, which kinds of communications services we use, and at what geolocations. And since virtually every device we use has a unique identifying number, our communications and Internet activities may be linked and traced with relative ease – ultimately back to the individuals involved.”

Cavoukian, 2013, p. 3

 

As presented in the document, these two definitions are at odds with one another: the formal one referring to information items about other information items; but not the descriptive definition which is rather referring to information about processes. But computer specialists do recognize many kinds of metadata, even though they might use different typologies.

The few lines entitled “A Day in the Life…” (pp. 3-4) provide a good illustration of how (processes) “metadata created by the devices that two individuals use to communicate with each other can reveal a great deal” about them.

Finally, the section “Metadata May Be More Revealing Than Content” (pp. 4-5) reads more like a series of arguments from authority than as an actual demonstration.

Need for evidenced arguments

Coincidently, answering engineering students in a lecture made at Polytechnique Montréal last week, I had to remind that an information set would be metadata, not by some intrinsic nature, but merely by the context of its initial production and use. Classically, the term data referred to information items that are available (or to be produced) for the solution of a problem or the completion of a reasoning, an inquiry or a research. As soon as one so uses “metadata” (what ever the type), they become “data”. Thus, no longer are “metadata”.

From the very first universal purpose computing machine, computers – and digital devices since – require metadata to work. And they also produce other metadata as by-products of their processes. And from the dawn of informatics, those metadata were at once reused as data.

There is nothing new with using metadata to produce knowledge about people. A classic example is the introduction of the computerized cash registers. As the machine processes the customers’ purchases, it produces clock metadata than can be used to asses the clerks’ speeds to punch (now scan) items, to take payments and give change, to pack the goods and pass to the next customers.

Anytime an operation is linkable to a human user, the operations’ metadata can be exploited as data about this human user (and anyone related to that person). Videogames provides good examples of how the same outputs can simultaneously be processes’ metadata and players’ data.

These relative artificiality and mutability of the distinction between data and metadata become obvious when one considers (as these tweet structure maps show) that making a tweet of a maximum of 140 characters can easily require the production of between 500 and 1000 characters of metadata which include… the tweet message itself !

And indeed, the “metadata”/”data” relative weights in todays’ particular instances can often be startling… if one can still distinguish between the two.

Also, need to make evidences evident

How come that there is no readily available button on which I could click to see the whole tweet actually produced, not only the message I wrote and sent?

Or how come that there is no readily available command to display what information my mobile phone service actually produces minute by minute?

And as I pointed out to Polytechnique’s engineering students: if NSA’s work is essentially done with computerized devices, how come Congress does not have a dashboard that harness the metadata about what kinds of operations NSA actually does? If such metadata would have been available, could Director James Clapper, been able to lie so easily about NSA’s operations before Congress? And Congress only discovering it through documents leaked by a whistleblower? After all, would it not be only metadata about systems’ uses, not data from the individual intelligence operations themselves? 😉

Such are questions of critical and practical political significance. Because they breed other questions about who decides the production of such information. About its uses. About who control them. About their consequences. And so on. Of critical and practical significance also because they could turn a defensive stance into one of political affirmation. Such questions stem from an understanding of the nature of what information and information processing are. This is why it is so important to deepen and strengthen such understanding as well as to popularize it and make it useable by all citizens.

So if you know any instructive work on the subject…

ExperimentsInformation & LawLab NotesNotesReflections

Abandoning the concept (and illustration) of “information collection” for that of “production”

In its original 1990 version, the theory of interpersonal information processes refers to collection as one of information’s logical phases. The term collection is borrowed from protection of personal information law, which itself borrowed it from the lexicon of public and private bureaucracies. However, the word collection (action to pick a pre-existing object) masks the presence of a production of new informational artifacts. The result is that several implications are veiled, particularly those related to the intellectual property of the new information objects and to their pragmatic dimension.

The question then is: should collection really be considered as a logical phase of information? Or is it the chosen term that is inadequate? (more…)

Research

Since January 2013, I started a new research project. A big project that will monopolize most of my energy in the coming years. And on the developments of which I will report on this site.

Its title is Beyond “Privacy”: General Theory of Interpersonal Information Processes.

This project’s aims it to equip actors, practitioners and researchers with tools for identifying and resolving issues and legal issues, social and ethical issues raised by the interpersonal information applications and systems that are increasingly present in our lives.

At this stage, I’m still setting up the project whose objectives are summarized below.

See you soon.

Objectives

1. to test the concepts and propositions of the original version (1990) of the legal theory of interpersonal information processes, including:

  • the intra-theoretical consistency of its concepts, definitions and propositions;
  • its trans-theoretical consistency with the Portrait of Interpersonal Information Processes visual modelling;
  • the empirical applicability of its statements to the analysis of interpersonal information handlings;
  • the empirical adequacy of its statements to reveal the legal, social and ethical implications of interpersonal information handlings;
  • its inter-theoretical correspondence with other models and approaches used by practitioners for analyzing information systems;
  • its inter-theoretical correspondence with other theories dealing with the same objects that have been developed in law, philosophy, anthropology, linguistics, computer science, information management, IT & Society Studies.

2. to verify the realization of the predictions of the 1990 theory about the coevolution of law and process interpersonal information;

3. to produce from the results of the two previous objectives:

  • a new trans-disciplinary version of the theory of interpersonal information processes, and
  • a corresponding update the Portrait of Interpersonal Information Processes visual modelling;

4. to develop additional analytical tools or manuals that could help researchers, practitioners and stakeholders to make use of the theory and the visual modeling.

1990 Theory

Here are the three texts founding the original version (1990) of the theory of interpersonal information processes (that was amended at numerous times afteward) :

Pierrot Péladeau, «Esquisse d’une théorie juridique des procès d’information relatifs aux personnes», (1989) 34 McGill Law Journal 952

Pierrot Péladeau, «L’informatique ordinatrice du droit et du procès d’information relative aux  personnes», (1989) 1 Technologies de l’information et société 35

Pierrot Péladeau, «The Informational Privacy Challenge: The Technological Rule of Law», dans R. I. Cholewinski (dir.), Human Rights in Canada: Into the 1900s and Beyond, Ottawa, Human Rights Research and Education Centre – University of Ottawa, 1990, p. 93

"Beyond Privacy" ProjectExperimentsInformation & LawLab NotesNotes

My New Major Research Project

Since January 2013, I started a new research project. A big project that will monopolize most of my energy in the coming years. And on the developments of which I will report on this site.

Its title is Beyond “Privacy”: General Theory of Interpersonal Information Processes.

This project’s aims it to equip actors, practitioners and researchers with tools for identifying and resolving issues and legal issues, social and ethical issues raised by the interpersonal information applications and systems that are increasingly present in our lives.

At this stage, I’m still setting up the project whose objectives are summarized below.

See you soon.

 

Objectives

1. to test the concepts and propositions of the original version (1990) of the legal theory of interpersonal information processes, including:

  • the intra-theoretical consistency of its concepts, definitions and propositions;
  • its trans-theoretical consistency with the Portrait of Interpersonal Information Processes visual modelling;
  • the empirical applicability of its statements to the analysis of interpersonal information handlings;
  • the empirical adequacy of its statements to reveal the legal, social and ethical implications of interpersonal information handlings;
  • its inter-theoretical correspondence with other models and approaches used by practitioners for analyzing information systems;
  • its inter-theoretical correspondence with other theories dealing with the same objects that have been developed in law, philosophy, anthropology, linguistics, computer science, information management, IT & Society Studies.

2. to verify the realization of the predictions of the 1990 theory about the coevolution of law and process interpersonal information;

3. to produce from the results of the two previous objectives:

  • a new trans-disciplinary version of the theory of interpersonal information processes, and
  • a corresponding update the Portrait of Interpersonal Information Processes visual modelling;

4. to develop additional analytical tools or manuals that could help researchers, practitioners and stakeholders to make use of the theory and the visual modeling.

"Beyond Privacy" ProjectCommunicationsLab NotesLiving between the linesNotesReading Notes

2012 Map of a Twitter Status Object for Dummies

Provisional book cover: Title :

This post is about the “Beyond Privacy” Project: LIVING BETWEEN THE LINES information society through our personal information.

As this is an open work-in-progress book drafting project,

please do not hesitate to comment!

Every input is precious to help improve it.

Many probably have seen the Map of a Twitter status object below. Produced by Raffi Krikorian, from Twitter’s engineering department, this one-page chart quickly became popular. This was because it illustrated in a single image that a Twitter message was not a mere line of text up to 140 characters.

Although this document and its annotations are addressed primarily to API developers, it had a strong educational value. I have used it often. You had to see how wide the eyes of information law students opened in surprise and curiosity! That chart made easy to pass on the message we must do our homework when assessing informational practice. That we not be satisfied with only the visible information items and processes. That we must understand what actually happens in the black box. Even ask a hand to computer technologists.

I was writing a new book chapter entitled “Production Inputs“. It explains that handling of information objects allows us to produce new ones. However, this task requires, often without our realizing, the production of even further information objects, either to carry it out, or to describe it. The example of the 140 characters tweet which, in fact, features thousands of characters of code lines seems great to illustrate this point.

So I undertook to produce a new chart that would be updated, clearer as well as, more easily readable and understandable by non-specialists.

Partial List of Information Items Linked to a Tweet (small)

The result is this chart spreading over two pages. But it would have taken three to be exhaustive. Please, click the following to access :

Among many things, this exercise revealed to me the existence of fields for blocking messages or entire users’ accounts at the request of public authorities, of holders copyright, or of others. It also revealed that this map is not only that of a tweet, but also of all the information items coproduced with it. To the extent that all these items are available in practice, the distinction is perhaps only one of nuance. From a pedagogical point of view however, this is worth mentioning.

Further revelation, I also found a few syntax, description and field’s status typos in the original chart from Krikorian. Far from being a Twitter engineer, I would be very grateful if you would signal to me any typo or error in the new chart proposed here.

"Beyond Privacy" ProjectCommunicationsLab NotesLiving between the linesNotes

“Beyond Privacy” Project: A Few Decisions Following Your Comments

Provisional book cover: Title :

This post is about the “Beyond Privacy” Project: LIVING BETWEEN THE LINES information society through our personal information.

As this is an open work-in-progress book drafting project,

please do not hesitate to comment!

Every input is precious to help improve it.

Firstly, a big thank you for the comments received so far!

Noteworthy detail: people who have commented so far all are women. Not a single man…

Each of your comments is valuable. Some have already resulted in several decisions, including:

  • to divide the Introduction into short chapters of less than 75 lines as in other parts of the book, in order to clarify and simplify the narrative;
  • to open the book with the Table of notions rather than with the Table of Contents so that one can see from the first pages what topics will be covered;
  • to add the following illustrations to the Prologue to make it clearer that its focus is the “links” that information objects weave between individuals, groups and communities, rather than information objects themselves.

One échography, one relationships network: figure showing that fetus Sarah's echography links her to her mother, and the latter to her doctor and hospital on one side, and through social media, the mother to her family, friends, colleages and contacts

Relationship supported by information: example of the petition. Here, a petition connects Sarah and other citizens (acting as petitioners) to a public authority (acting as the petitioned party). The relationship is the act of petition.

"Beyond Privacy" ProjectCommunicationsLab NotesLiving between the linesNotes

“Beyond Privacy” Project: Bibliography

Provisional book cover: Title :

This post is about the “Beyond Privacy” Project: LIVING BETWEEN THE LINES information society through our personal information.

As this is an open work-in-progress book drafting project,

please do not hesitate to comment!

Every input is precious to help improve it.

Bibliography

Cross, R. C, and M. S Wheatland. “Modeling a Falling Slinky.” arXiv:1208.4629 (August 22, 2012). http://arxiv.org/abs/1208.4629

Floridi, Luciano. Information: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press,

Le Grand dictionnaire terminologique. Office de la langue française du Québec. http://www.gdt.oqlf.gouv.qc.ca/

Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford, United Kingdom. Oxford University Press. 2010. http://www.oed.com/

Trésor de la langue française informatisé. Analyse et traitement informatique de la langue française, Centre national de la recherche scientifique & Université Nancy-II. http://atilf.atilf.fr/

"Beyond Privacy" ProjectCommunicationsLab NotesLiving between the linesNotes

“Beyond Privacy” Project: Chapter on the Material Reality of Information

Provisional book cover: Title :

This post is about the “Beyond Privacy” Project: LIVING BETWEEN THE LINES information society through our personal information.

As this is an open work-in-progress book drafting project,

please do not hesitate to comment!

Every input is precious to help improve it.

Chapter from Part One: Alignment: Objects Called “Information”

Material Strength

 

Digital information items are objects of which we entrust the handling to machines. Often microscopic, such information objects and handlings then can become invisible to us.

Many have claimed that we are witnessing a dematerialization of human activities.

Dematerialization of the economy? It is true that increasing shares of production and commerce consume less matter and energy. One share consists of “intellectual” services: marketing, research and development, consulting, training. Another share deals with digital products which may be transported electronically.

Dematerialization of money? Of finance? Or of information in general? Also true. Everywhere, paper is being replaced by powerful electronic media.

Unfortunately, many are those who thought that it was literal dematerialization. Complete disappearance of matter. Such dematerialization would imply that information items are immaterial entities. The huge Internet infrastructure would be a sort of intangible cloud. Some cyberspace would be developing in some parallel universe whose properties fall outside those of the physical world. State legislation would be practically unenforceable there. Information flows would be insensitive to national borders. Any ambition to control these flows would prove illusory. (more…)

"Beyond Privacy" ProjectCommunicationsLab NotesLiving between the linesNotes

“Beyond Privacy” Project: Chapter Defining “Information” by Using a Slinky

Provisional book cover: Title :

This post is about the “Beyond Privacy” Project: LIVING BETWEEN THE LINES information society through our personal information.

As this is an open work-in-progress book drafting project,

please do not hesitate to comment!

Every input is precious to help improve it.

Chapter form Part One: Alignment: Objects Called “Information”

High Definition

 

The word “information” is part of our everyday language. But it means too many different things. A careful exploration demands that we first settle on a common definition.

Falling Slinky: Experiment showing that bottom end of a Slinky in free fall will float until the above coils come to it

Literally, to inform means “to give a form” to something. This was the sense of its 2000 years old Latin ancestor, informare. It was also used to say “to get an idea of” something or someone. (more…)

"Beyond Privacy" ProjectCommunicationsLab NotesLiving between the linesNotes

“Beyond Privacy” Project: The Prologue (on the education that our kids deserve)

Provisional book cover: Title :

This post is about the “Beyond Privacy” Project: LIVING BETWEEN THE LINES information society through our personal information.

As this is an open work-in-progress book drafting project,

please do not hesitate to comment!

Every input is precious to help improve it.

Prologue

Life Lines

 

Let us imagine Sarah, a teenager who muses about how numerous information items link her to others. Shouldn’t we offer ourselves and our kids such an education?

 

My births

My foetal life was a pampered one. My mother closely watched over it. Both she and I enjoyed the support of caring relatives as well as of modern medicine. Thus long before my birth, my mother’s medical records already had stored up about me more than a hundred lines of text. Notes about observations, test results, diagnostic findings, prescriptions and medical procedures. Not to mention the thousands of lines of ultrasound images. Images of me which my Mom proudly displayed on her social networks’ pages. Sites that also displayed hundreds of lines of encouragements and advices from the people she meets there as well as from her obstetrician.

One échography, one relationships network: figure showing that fetus Sarah's echography links her to her mother, and the latter to her doctor and hospital on one side, and through social media, the mother to her family, friends, colleages and contacts

Barely out of the womb, the confirmation of my vital signs resulted in the opening of my very own medical record. I must admit that, for a time, it was identified by the bland first name of… “Baby”. Still, it was through the creation of this file that I finally became a “patient” in my own right, even after months of medical follow up.

My noisy and exhausting delivery was quickly followed by another birth. A more subtle but decisive one: that of a new citizen. It took place by writing of a few lines on a form for vital statistics registration. A seemingly minor gesture. But this act immediately made me the bearer of many legal rights and benefits – and later of obligations – among this society where accidents of history and genetics made me entered life.

And from “Baby”, I officially became “Sarah”.

(more…)

"Beyond Privacy" ProjectCommunicationsLab NotesLiving between the linesNotes

“Beyond Privacy” Project: the ‘Introduction’ chapter

Provisional book cover: Title :

This post is about the “Beyond Privacy” Project: LIVING BETWEEN THE LINES information society through our personal information.

As this is an open work-in-progress book drafting project,

please do not hesitate to comment!

Every input is precious to help improve it.

Introduction

In Lines Societies

 

Digital technologies are transforming our world a little more each day. Enough to say that we are experiencing a revolution. Understanding information and its roles leads us to a familiar and ancestral invention: writing.

 

Information, you say?

The computer has been invented some three quarters of a century ago. Its countless electronic avatars have scattered everywhere, even in our pockets. Mankind has accelerated its production of “bytes” and “data” in ever greater astronomical quantities. Still, how many of us do understand these “information” objects? How many perceive the different roles that humans can make them play? How many know how can we use them ourselves? How can we influence the uses that others make of them when they affect us? The education of our Sarah in the Prologue, despite its obvious necessity, is still largely fiction. Yet, this book demonstrates how little it takes to lay the foundations of it.

This is because the presence of information items surfaces more and more in the open. Day after day, all around us. The growing popularity of digital applications and social networks multiply our opportunities for learning and experimentation. And our culture already offers us several keys for their understanding and their mastery. (more…)

"Beyond Privacy" ProjectCommunicationsLab NotesLiving between the linesNotes

“Beyond Privacy” Project: the Table of Content

"Beyond Privacy" ProjectCommunicationsLab NotesLiving between the linesNotes

Launch of the Open Work-in-Progress “Beyond Privacy” Project

LIVING BETWEEN THE LINES

information society through our personal information

Invitation

Couverture provisoire du livre : Titre : « Vivre entre les lignes : la société de l'information à travers nos information personnelles » - Mentions : « Par delà la vie privée - Livre en chantier ouvert »
This post launch the open work-in-progress drafting of a book  intended for a broad audience: as much curious citizens as specialists in various fields and educators. Its aim: to help understand our information societies from an exploration of the closer reality of our own personal information. Its main challenge: to present useful, but often technical knowledge in clear and simple language. Hence the idea of an open work-in-progress.

The name of the project and the book’s working title: “Beyond Privacy” Project: LIVING BETWEEN THE LINES information society through our personal information.

Chapters will be published as and when they are produced. You are invited to comment. Your comments and suggestions are valuable. They will help improve the discussed contents and the way they are communicated. (more…)

“Beyond Privacy” Project: LIVING BETWEEN THE LINES information society through our personal information

An Open Work-in-Progress

Invitation

Provisional book cover: Title : Here is a book project intended for a broad audience: as much curious citizens as specialists in various fields and educators. Its aim: to help understand our information societies from an exploration of the closer reality of our own personal information. Its main challenge: to present useful, but often technical knowledge in clear and simple language. Hence the idea of an open work-in-progress. The name of the project and the book’s working title: “Beyond Privacy” Project: LIVING BETWEEN THE LINES information society through our personal information. Chapters will be published as and when they are produced. You are invited to comment. Your comments and suggestions are valuable. They will help improve the discussed contents and the way they are communicated. Chapters are first published in the work-in-progress blog on pierrot-peladeau.net. Following each chapter, you will find a discussion space to receive your comments. A parallel version in Frenchis systematically offered. Waiting for your comments. I wish you an enjoyable reading.

State of the project

October 22, 2012: Launch of the open drafting process and posting of the Table of Contents, the Table of Notions and the Introduction (Societies In Lines);

October 28, 2012: Posting of the Prologue (Life Lines);

November 2, 2012:  Posting of the chapters High Definition and Material Strength from Part One: Alignment: Objects Called “Information” and the Credits page;

November 8, 2012:  Posting of the Glossary and Bibliography pages;

November 20, 2012: Posting of A Few Decisions Following Your Comments;

December 3, 2012: Posting of the chapter Utility Vehicles from Part One: Alignment: Objects Called “Information”;

December 16, 2012: Posting of a Map of a Twitter Status Object for Dummies for a coming chapter.

All posts related to this project can be found under the “Beyond Privacy” Project category.

History of the project

In 2004, I was scientific advisor to a documentary project for which Radio-Canada had agreed to be the first broadcaster. To feed the script, I produced a list of notions useful to understand the properties and roles of personal information. The first list well exceeded 80 notions. Too long for a movie or even a mini-series. I was able to reduce this number to 21. Unfortunately, the documentary was never shot. Because the producers preferred to make an author film rather than scientific popularization one. However, the list of 21 notions was used in an adults’ education pilot experiment. This project, funded by the Canadian Council on Learning, was carried out in 2008 by Communautique. This trial demonstrated the feasibility of transmitting these ideas from any adult’s personal experiences. Including to people unfamiliar with the use of computer or with low literacy. The experiment continued in 2008-2010 as part of a regular column on the Citoyen numérique (Digital Citizen) radio show on CIBL 101,5 Montreal. A parallel written column was published on a blog of the National Film Board’s CITIZENShift site. Then in 2011, with bachelor of laws degree students in an Information & Law course at UQAM. In 2012, the project continues with this open book drafting exercise.

Field RemarksInformation & LawLab NotesLiving between the linesNotesObservationsReflections

Self-managing our digital identity, digital assets and intellectual property in case of death or incapacity

ObservationsNow a grandfather, I had to revise my will and mandate in case of incapacity. Except that this time, I found out that I must ask my potential agents and testamentary executors to deal with the ubiquity of digital media. That does complicate their task.

Only a few years ago, one could easily find the documents of an incapacitated or deceased person. It was enough to systematically round the various places where the person lived and worked. The nature of the documents generally jumped in the eyes: contracts, invoices, private correspondence, books, recordings, professional documents, etc. In the absence of specific instructions, one could apply certain customs: such as delivering private correspondence items to their authors, distribution of content libraries, records shelves, photo albums or collections to interested close ones; retention of fiscal documents for some six years before destroying them.

Digitalization of assets

As more and more people around me, I hold less and less documents on paper or other macroscopic media. Already, most of my documents are to be found in digital forms: private correspondence, files, invoices, contracts, tax documents, banking and accounting, books, music, photos, work documentation, etc. (more…)

CommunicationsDebatesLab NotesLiving between the linesNotes

Public conversation: Autonomy, Surveillance and Democracy: Who will benefit from the digital traces generated by our every move?

On Thursday, October 6, 2011 (7 to 9 pm), I will be the guest of an University of the Streets Café‘s conversation moderated by Sophie Ambrosi on the theme: Autonomy, Surveillance and Democracy: Who will benefit from the digital traces generated by our every move?

Computers, automatic tellers, phones and other electronic gadgets. Today, our relations with our close ones, other people and organizations go through machines processing thousands of information items about us. These texts, sounds and images become communications, transactions, records, decisions. They can be transformed into statistics and knowledge about individuals, groups and societies, even about the nature of the human animals (e.g., conditions of their health). Knowledge that can base decisions, trivial or major. The information society is necessarily a surveillance society. So what kinds of surveillance are reprehensible in a free and democratic society? And which ones are desirable? Under what conditions?

The conversation will take place at Café l’Artère, 7000, Avenue du Parc (near Jean-Talon) in Montreal. Everyone is invited and admission is free. The event is organized by the Institute for Community Development, Concordia University.

CommunicationsDebatesLab NotesLiving between the linesNotesObservationsReflections

For a Comprehensive Citizen Appropriation of Information and its Technologies

Written adaptation of a lecture given at a dinner for the 10th anniversary of Communautique on January 26, 2010 in Montreal.

Video of the conference (in French)

tablette cuneiformeI was asked to address the importance that information and communications technologies have taken over the last decade and will have in the foreseeable future. This from the point of view of citizens. I will do this exercise through the use of the concept of social appropriation, which is the process by which people integrate innovations into their lives to empower themselves, adapting and even hijacking them from their initial control or purposes to fit their needs and interests.

History shows that literacy can be a necessary condition for democracy. However, the fact that population is highly literate does not necessarily mean that it will live in a free and democratic society. Many well educated populations have lived at one time or another, under authoritarian or dictatorial, even totalitarian regime.

Similarly, one could argue that the fact that a population knows how to use technical devices does not mean that it control how technologies organize the relationships between citizens. Access to tools and skill development are necessary but not sufficient conditions for such mastery.

Let’s illustrate this assertion with some examples of devices currently deployed.

Body scanners
Earlier this January, the Federal Transport Minister, John Baird, announced the acquisition and installation of 44 body scanners in Canadian airports with a price tag of a quarter of a million piece. Let’s put aside for a moment the legitimate debates about the effectiveness, real or symbolic, of these devices or about their potential health harmfulness. In less than two months, we, Canadian citizens, will have the freedom to choose: either to be patted down with hands or to be patted down with eyes.

But is this the only choice offered by information technologies and digital imaging?

A colleague forwarded me the press file of all articles published following the announcement. There is hardly anyone who mentioned the fact that this purchase had been ordered without bidding, nor that we could have acquire software, to avoid full naked exposure: either by only signaling dubious spots or by projecting the exact image of the surface of the body of the person on a standard dummy (using morphing technique). The result of such an acquisition would have offered a very different choice between: either to be patted down with hands, or, simply to let electronically detection of the presence of objects on us.

Different types of body scanners

Apparently, no Member of Parliament has spoken of these alternatives. No journalist. No organization of citizens, consumers or human rights advocacy. Not even the official comment of the Commissioner of Canada’s privacy.

Maybe Minister Baird himself is unaware of the existence of these alternatives!

Yet as good digital citizens, many of us know how to use a digital camera and image processing software, how to find the minister’s press release on the Web, how to see his press briefing on our computer or telephone, and how to discuss that news in blogs or on Twitter. We do know technology!

Smart bank cards
Second example: Since 2008, Canadian financial institutions deploy their smart banking cards. No minister or MP, no consumer association or other organization of civil society, no media has provoked public debate on the model of payment system that could be supported by the addition of a microprocessor in customers, debit and credit cards.

Yet, since the invention of the so-called “smart” microprocessor card, hundreds of different ways to use it were devised. The range of available applications for banking goes from very talkative systems about every action taken by the user to other ultra-quiet ones, producing as little personal information as the use of paper money.

Different designs of smart banking cards

However, there can be only one system configuration, which de facto legislates the relationships between consumers, merchants and financial institutions.

We had choices! For example, between allowing banks to produce but very little information or, conversely, permit them to produce a lot, but by forcing them to share this valuable source of knowledge about in real time evolution of our economy.

For example, the government of Ms. Dominique Vien (Quebec’s Minister of Government Services, also a speaker at this luncheon meeting) must make difficult decisions about whether the State should keep its foot on the accelerator pedal of the economy, release that pedal a bit or rather put it on the brakes. However, several of the figures available to the government often can only describe a situation that is already four months old! That complicates decision making. Even more so because due to the same delays in production of information, we will be not able to know what have been the effects of today’s decisions before many months.

But the continued production by banks of detailed and real-time information about electronic payments (that you and I pay directly the production through our bank fees), combined with the power of today’s computers could reduce this gap for some key figures to something as short as in weeks, even days!

Yet, this public debate on the democratic choice of the quantity of information generated or not by the electronic payment systems and their possible use for the benefit not only banks but also the entire society has never been place.

But as good digital citizens, we do know how to use an ATM and how to donate to Haiti by Web transactions or by text message. We do know technology!
Which social appropriation?
This brings us back to the topic of social appropriation. Generally, we define “appropriation” as the process by which an individuals and groups incorporate an innovation in their practice and adapt it, even hijack it to fit their needs.

For 10 years, Communautique, its partners and many other organizations work for the appropriation of digital tools by citizens. They work and campaign to ensure universal access to Internet and computer. They train in the use of software, the Web, social networks and collaborative tools.

Social appropriation of tools is not enough

However, we must recognize that training in the use of tools is not enough since digital devices increasingly insinuate themselves in any object. Even in our pills …

Pills with microchip
Pharmaceutical companies are testing the use of tablets with imbedded microchip. In one experiment, the device sends a text message reminder to patients on their cell phone if they do not follow properly the doctor’s prescription.

Such a device could be configured to link patients, physicians and pharmacists in a hundred of different ways. For example, to verify if we do take our medicines. To automatically ask for new doses of our medicines to be delivered to us when our bottles are emptying. Even to call an ambulance, if we have swallowed the whole bottle at once.

The question is obviously about: who will decide on a configuration rather than another? Thus, to determine how will the relationships between patients, doctors and pharmacists be organized. And why not other relationships including also pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies and the world of biomedical research.

Did not we have our say? Especially if these devices are gradually being forced into the lives of us all?

Citizen appropriation
Democracy requires that appropriation by citizens goes beyond the mere handling of tools designed by others. It requires that citizens and the components of civil society can contribute to the development of tools that compel some organization of interpersonal relationships. Democracy requires a real possibility to participate in choices affecting the organization of these interactions.

This involves not only knowledge about tools and their handling, but also (as for the scanners, bank cards and pills examples), knowledge of different information that can be produced or not and the various ways they can be used or not.

Comprehensive appropriation of information and its technologies

So, real citizen appropriation must apply to as much to information and interpersonal relationships as to the computerized tools.

Let us step further. Not only would such an appropriation would be necessary to ensure some democratic nature to the information society, but it is also necessary to the very success of the computerization of its activities!

Already, online businesses can make substantial profits and government services online be meaningful only if the largest possible number of citizens have access to the internet and knows how to use them with confidence.

Ensuring adequacy of applications
Indeed, the success of many computer products and services will also increasingly depend on the ability of citizens to discuss information, tools and interpersonal relationships. In a research I conducted on online government services, I exchanged a lot with designers about what could make a system to be dysfunctional, thus engulfing citizens in some Kafkaesque bureaucratic purgatory rather than help them. My aim obviously was to understand, conversely, how to ensure that computerized service works well. The conclusion is summarized in this diagram that lists the factors to be considered.

Pragmatics of information in computerized interaction

I cannot discuss here with you all these factors in detail. Suffice to state for now that, in practice, it is required not only that the organization understands very well all the dimensions of its own processes (which is already a demanding job), but it must also understand as well why and how different people – users or consumers – use differently its service. How certain categories of people appropriate themselves the service differently for what different purposes. Conversely, it is also important that citizens understand well what the ends of the service and the information they exchange with the organization so they get the results they want and provide the right useful information for this purpose.

First, a very small example. In an application as simple as a change of address service, I asked the designer: “What address the Régie d’Assurance-maladie (Medicare Board) holds on the citizens insured? The designer replied: “Clearly, the address of domicile.” This is indeed what the law says, but I rose: “Are you sure?” The designer then starts to laugh: “Actually, we have no idea.” And from there, we explored all the cases where the citizen has delivered an address other than that of their domicile: such as students who give their parents’ address as a mailing address knowing that they might often change place of residence.

Whatever laws, forms and data models, it remains that the citizens are the ones who decide whether in the “address” box, they give a home address, mailing address, an address for service or otherwise.

Now, among the range of effective means to know and understand the uses, expectations, needs and constraints of citizens is public consultation. Who better than the citizens themselves or organizations who work daily with them may indicate their different uses and understandings of a particular service?

My second example is in the the very large and complex end of the spectrum. It is the huge project for computerization of medical records that, in the foreseeable future, will cost well over a billion dollars in Quebec, beyond five billion in Canada. We have already lost tens of millions of our taxes in inadequate solutions. And in the current situation, we will still lose tens of millions more along the way. And one of the causes of these inadequacies is precisely a lack of digital literacy in our society.

Senior government officials told me they can barely match the strategic vision with the real practical needs in the field. Yet meanwhile, we develop and we implement technical solutions. The approach is ultimately a costly process of trials and errors. Often I was asked the question: “It’s clear that he should consult directly with patients and the public, but how do we do that? Already among us, professionals who work daily on this, it is difficult for us to share a common understanding of the systems.”

The democratic challenge
To develop of our ability to discuss complicated technical devices among ourselves is indeed a significant cultural challenge. A challenge that must imperatively be met. Because otherwise we will face much more serious inefficiencies in number, importance and increasing costs (just think about the dramatic deterioration experienced in the customer services of several large companies, for example). Indeed, democracy itself is at risk if we progressively abandon the decisions about the organization of relationships between citizens to engineers, technocrats or lowest bidding suppliers. Decisions more often taken abroad because of the universalization of technical products or standards to ensure international interoperability of systems.

We’re still early in the long process of computerization of societies which will gradually creep into every corner of our lives, including even under our clothes, in our wallets and in our pills. Much of the information handlings in question bear interpersonal relationships while shaping them in detail in a way that will bind all parties. The democratic mastery of this form of effective legislation makes it necessary that all of us – private citizens, community organizations, governments and companies – do develop the idea of appropriation and its practice at a more comprehensive level that encompasses the social dimensions, including the downright political ones, of technical choices.

This is, of course, far more than the challenge of a decade, or even of a generation. This is the challenge posed by a true revolution that will likely extend throughout this century. While a considerable challenge, an exciting one for sure!

CommunicationsLab NotesLiving between the linesNotesObservations

For a Comprehensive Citizen Appropriation of Information and its Technologies: The Video

tablette cuneiformeI did not notice that the video was posted online for already a long time now. It was produced for the captation of my lecture given at Communautique 10th anniversary luncheon held on January 26, 2010 in Montreal. It deals with the importance from the citizens’ standpoint that information and communications technologies took during the last decade and which one will it take in the foreseeable future. An exercise into which I engaged from the concept of social appropriation. Access to that video is now embedded in this site.

The text of the conference will be also be posted here shortly.

Living between the linesNotesObservations

Digital Education: What Culture for Children of the Information Society?

tablette cuneiformeIf all goes well, I will become in a few months grandfather for the first time. A new human being close to me will be born in the digital twenty-first century. What education should children receive in order to decode the informational dimension of the world in which they live and grow? To illustrate, I imagined this monologue told by a teenager girl.

Also in PDF

– – –

LINES

Sarah muses about some of her links to others

My foetal life was a privileged one. Not only has my mother closely watched over it, but both she and I enjoyed support from caring relatives and the formidable means of modern medicine. Thus, long before my birth, my mother’s medical records had store up about me a hundred lines of text of observations, test results, diagnostic findings and decisions. Not to mention the thousands of lines of ultrasound images, which were also placed on the social network page of my mother where she received advices and encouragements from close ones as well as from specialists.

Barely out of the womb, the confirmation of my vital signs allowed the opening of my very own medical record. I must admit that, for some time, it was identified by the bland first name… “Baby”.  Still, it was with the creation of this file that I finally became a “patient” in my own right after months of medical care. (more…)

Lab NotesLiving between the linesNotesObservationsReflections

Truthfulness of personal information as indicator of social morality?

ObservationsCan the level of accuracy of personal information items be indicative of the moral virtue of the social system in which the information is used?

This question came to me while I was doing some renovation at home while listening to Tapestry CBC One radio show. This week, Mary Hynes met Sam Harris in the wake of the publication of his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. A surprisingly short interview given that this show’s usual practice is to devote its whole hour to a single personality or subject. By listening to Harris, one understands. He certainly offers a convincing argument about the ability of science to shed light on a moral issue, or even to decide between what is right and wrong. However, the fierceness of his attacks against religions quickly annoys, thus weakening his argument.

Still, neuroscience, for example, can objectively observe through scanner and hormonal analysis that, in general, an altruistic action provides wellness to human beings who do it as those who receive it. It also observes as exactly the opposite effect with a selfish action, that it is even worse for a malevolent action. Many developments in biology, ethology and ethnology as well as psychology and sociology do offer increasingly revealing insights on various moral issues. As Harris points out, science offers here the advantage to transcend cultures, religions and moral systems because of the provable and universal nature of its conclusions.

What with the quality of personal information? The short answer is that, on one hand, science is dependent on the quality of its data and that this quality often depends on the willingness or ability of human beings to tell the truth. Still on the other hand, the level of accuracy of the provided information is measurable… scientifically.

The anecdotal answer comes from to two recent observations about the necessity…  to lie. (more…)

« Previous Entries

1 comment |
line
footer
Powered by WordPress | Designed by Elegant Themes