Polls, Protest and Participation: A Changing Landscape in Public Engagement and Responsible Data

Aidan Peppin

In 2020, the Ada Lovelace Institute convened a series of workshops to discuss social and ethical issues related to data-driven biometrics technologies (such as facial recognition) with a selected, demographically diverse group of 50 members of the UK public

During the final workshop, held in October,  the group presented a set of recommendations to a panel of expert policymakers, lawyers, regulators and technologists. 

In the panel’s responses to the recommendations, one statement stood out: 

“One of the constant concerns that everybody has [around public engagement] is the extent to which ordinary people can understand issues and form opinions about them. What’s really impressive in this work is that people who don’t necessarily have expertise, experience or some knowledge in this area to begin with can give really clear and informed decisions about what they want from this kind of technology.” 

In this comment, the speaker unknowingly reflected a significant shift that has occurred around public engagement on data issues in recent years. Only a handful of years ago, ‘data’ was considered by many as a topic too dry, too complex, too important to be left to public opinion. But as irresponsible data practices have caused social harm and created controversy, the landscape has shifted dramatically, and it has become clear that a topic as complex and important as data must, in fact, be addressed through meaningful engagement with people and with society. 

Controversies like the Cambridge Analytica and Clearview AI scandals have unveiled the scale of irresponsible data practices and the influence these practices can have on people and society. These have coincided with the rise and rise of big tech platforms, which have become embedded in every aspect of our daily lives – so much so that living without them is near impossible

Many people have realised how little agency they have to influence the data-driven systems they use every day, leaving them to reluctantly accept the presence of Google, Facebook, Amazon and other data-hungry companies in their lives. As a result, data rights have moved to the fore of public consciousness.

At the same time we’ve seen how bias and racial discrimination are augmented through technologies built on poor data; how badly designed algorithms have resulted in unfair outcomes for school students; and how many people feel that big tech platforms’ power and profits have grown too much

But we’ve also seen other important – and more positive – shifts. There’s been a rise in participatory democracy projects like citizens’ assemblies and juries, focused on tech issues as well as broader social issues like climate change. Surveys about people’s attitudes to technology, like the one my colleagues ran in 2019 on facial recognition, are gaining more attention from policymakers and technology developers. There are a growing number of community-driven initiatives to empower people with data, like data coops and citizen data initiatives. And there’s an increase in resistance to harmful technologies and invasive data practices, from successful legal cases raised by members of the public, to student-led protests

In whatever form resistance and engagement take – whether polling, protest or participation – it’s clear that not only are more and more people willing to engage on data issues, but that they also bring with them valuable knowledge and experience. There’s also a greater capacity in many governments and organisations to listen to and respond to public engagement initiatives, in recognition of the fact that people’s actions and views often shine light on what’s broken and how to fix it.

This rise in resistance and participation on data issues is a direct response to the growing power of big tech and big data, and marks how people and communities are trying to regain influence, not just over their own data, but over how data is used more generally: to ensure it’s used responsibly and for the good of society. 

All this has been accelerated by the pandemic, culminating in a year in which the largest tech companies have consolidated their power and dominance, and in which people have felt even more powerless over data, despite antitrust cases and calls to tighten regulation. But people are still engaging, whether virtually or in person, to help raise awareness around, and shine light on, the places where data practices are not working for people and society. The protests, the community organising, and the increasing political will to support and listen to people and communities all suggest that the public have a huge and vital role to play in shaping the future of data policy and practice. 

Scholars of the public understanding of science have described how the way we view public engagement with technology varies between a limited ‘deficit model’ – which assumes people lack the knowledge needed to develop informed opinions on technology – to more effective models that recognise the much more complex relationship between people and tech. In recent years we’ve seen a positive shift from the former to the latter when it comes to engagement with issues around responsible data. 

Tech may shape the world around us, but people and society shape technology too. Amid growing awareness around data issues, kindling resistance against irresponsible data practices and strengthening the will to build a better world are all the ingredients necessary for public engagement to be a critical component in creating and implementing responsible data practices and policies.