DTL Talks: Ramon Sangüesa, DTL Coordinator

26 Jan 2017
Ramón Sangüesa tells us about Transparency and the upcoming projects planned for DTL 2017

Barcelona, Spain

Why is transparency important?

First we have to be clear about the type of transparency we are talking about. For us, at DTL (the Data Transparency Lab) “transparency” means the ability to know everything one needs to know about the uses his or her personal data are put to. That is, which data is used by whom, when, how, to what end and why. This is not an easy task. However, it is needed if we really want users to be able to make well-informed decisions about who to trust their data to or, in general, what to do with their data: shut it out it completely, share it selectively, give it away, sell it, etc.

So, transparency is important because it is basic to re-establish trust in the online world in general and in particular in the different actors (companies but also public institutions) that ask people their personal data to deliver them services.

And it is clear that this trust is on the verge of a sharp decline. In part, this decline is due to several well-known cases of misuse of data, and the fact that many current practices -online behavioral advertising, profiling, political campaigns, etc.- are making an extensive use of data.

In a way data transparency is a natural consequence of the connection of Big Data and the explosion of what Luciano Floridi calls “onlife”. That is, the fact that our life takes places at several “worlds” at the same time, and the “online” world is more and more important. The fact that our identities are digital, i.e., expressed as data representations and data processes, implies that they become objectified too and are the subject to interchange between actors, commercial or otherwise, that treats them as another object. Our “technoselves” are accessed by many, many actors online that work on them and extract value from them. Sometimes they return a lot of value in exchange but sometime they don’t. And this is the balance that is still very obscure.

Given the actual opacity of the current practices, people tend to magnify the adverse effects of the processes that operate on their personal data. That makes them react in extreme ways sometimes. The explosion of adblocking is connected to this perception. Between that extreme negative perception, that some people solve by shutting in, and a false confidence which most of the time amount to ignorance of what is going on, there is a wide spectrum of possibilities that can be addressed… if we have the right technology to reveal what happens with personal data. That is the mission of DTL too: to foster research and innovation in the creation of tools that allow users to understand the ups and downs of current practices related to their personal data. Basically, tools not just to manage privacy but to manage transparency.

What are the last trends related to data transparency?

There is a lot going on nowadays but there is a growing interest in different communities around the practical implementation of transparency tools: from detecting if your are being discriminated because of the way your personal data is collected and understood to letting you know how much (monetary) value some third parties extract from your personal data (which you don’t receive in the form of money) to actually creating ways for you to barter with your data and getting money in return.

Transparency is now connected with emerging areas of technological applications. The Internet of Things is a technological ecosystem where transparency is going to be important.

And we keep seeing more and more applications that address and reveal transparency about the uses of personal data in social media platforms, that show how search engines can induce discriminatory behaviors, etc.

The grants that the Data Transparency Lab gives every year could be seen as a sample of the different interests around data transparency. Our grantees do high-quality research on detecting if and how you are tracked, on auditing automatically the data transparency practices of thousands of websites online at a time and ranking them according to their level of transparency, and also we see more and more research on solutions to improve transparency for mobile users.

Also DTL is connected with communities in research, development and innovation. There is a lot of work on the relationship with transparency of Machine Learning techniques and other ones related to Artificial Intelligence.

What is the future of personal data transparency?

In the short time we will see a growing pressure from users to have solutions that allow them to know what happens with their data and to assess the value that they get in return. Also, I am sure that in Europe the deployment of the General Data Protection Regulation will spawn a lot of innovation, since it will require new tools.

I also think that the innovation we can see around transparency connects also very well with other areas such as Personal Information Management Systems (PIMS). In a way, the type of tools that are created in the Transparency community complement very well those in PIMS that let you manage your data and decide who to share them and at which level. In a way, with data transparency tools you can know what is really happening with your data and then decide if and how to share them with one of these other personal management systems.

But we also will see more and more applications and services that help understand what happens in intelligent environments. Smart cities, and in general, any space where the Internet of Things is applied, are environments with challenging scenarios to assess and manage transparency. I am really interested in the type of solutions that will address the challenges posed by the expansion of Artificial Intelligence solutions all over.

Do companies really care about data transparency?

If they don’t, they should because, if not, they are going to lose the trust of their customers. I think we will see a clear divide in the type of services and relationships with customers and society in a broad sense between those companies that understand the value of transparency and those that do not. And when I say “value” you can interpret this also as “worth”. Literally being conscious of what data transparency means and articulating a credible strategy around it, is also a big business opportunity.

And users?

Users are a bit polarized at the moment. Either they say that they don’t care about what happens with their personal data or they imagine dangers much bigger than what, at the moment, we know are the real practices on personal data.

I have been running awareness workshops with people of many different origins and backgrounds in different countries. What is common to all of them is, first, the biased, polarized, perception I have just mentioned but also, at the same time, a strong desire for autonomy. By this I mean being able to decide about what happens not just with their data but in general with the effects of their activities online. They want to go beyond the current dilemma of having to pay, so to speak, with their privacy to get better services. Actually they may even have a different view on what “better services” mean to what companies understand by this. I think some companies are still under the spell of the data they can gather and imagine new services so to speak in a data space but not in a user- or customer- space. Developing really better services on such a delicate area as transparency requires a mix of methods based on technological data gathering and processing possibilities and a thorough understanding of the context, expectations, and perceptions of users. Probably one of the most repeated word in the last Data Transparency Lab Conference in New York City was “context” and context is something that is not just only buried in the hearth of data collected by companies in the databases they create from online data streams. It requires a contrast and an enrichment of many different qualitative context from many different users. It goes beyond the contextualization that you get by clustering and profiling users. We will see some companies understanding this and coming up with really good services.

Which activities is going to develop the Data Transparency Lab in 2017?

This is a very exciting year indeed. We have decided to increase our efforts to raise awareness about the importance of transparency and the development of tools for facilitating it. In doing so, we are going to team up with other communities. In that sense we are happy to continue our current effort to support world-class research in transparency through our DTL Grant Programme that is covered with the contributions of the DTL consortium members (Telefónica, AT&T, Mozilla, MIT Connection Science and now INRIA). But this year we also want to put special effort in the collaboration with other communities related with transparency.

At the research level this means that we will continue our current closeness with the communities that work on Data Accountability and Transparency and Fairness Accountability and Transparency and Machine Learning. We helped them organized their conferences (DAT and FAT-ML) in cooperation with DTL Conferences last year in New York City and we will keep close to them.

Beyond this important effort towards the research community, this year we will also organize a series of very practical workshops focused on detecting new ideas for services that respond to the transparency requirements of present and near-future users. This type of workshops will be addressed to industry leaders in the spirit of accelerating the creation of valuable services in an open and distributed way. That is, to enrich the industry ecosystem with tools to speed up the creation and deployment of services based on transparency tools. We are planning a series of workshops in several European cities in cooperation with other communities in privacy and personal information management systems.

Finally we want to increase awareness among the general public, the industry and policymakers. And we are preparing workshops and contents addressed to this end.

What can we expect at DTL conferences in Nov, 2017 in Paris?

We are still in the final steps of defining the definitive program but I can advance that the conference will be a privileged place to see before anywhere else the development of new tools coming out of the Grant Programme. This has been a defining point in our conferences since the very first edition. On top of that there will be specialized sessions and workshops on tools for mobile transparency, a workshop on value creation for users and companies that will showcase success stories and results from the workshops that I described earlier, a workshop on tools, applications and services to implement GDPR and also we will cover the topics of Transparency and online advertising. This time we hope to devote some reflection on communication and engagement strategies to educate users and companies about transparency.

We want the next DTL conference to be very active and productive. We will prioritize encounter formats that focus on sharing experiences and “hands on” experiences. People should go back from DTL’17 up with new ideas, collaborations and ready to start projects. And connect with each other, that is why we will have a fast “speed dating” session for business and innovation.

I am sure that it will be a great meeting.