“Data is people: ethical considerations in data collection and use”

Wednesday, May 29, from 4:30 to 5:20 p.m. — Physics/Astronomy Auditorium, room A118

Casey Fiesler, Assistant Professor, Department of Information Science, University of Colorado Boulder


Everyone’s tweets, blog posts, photos, reviews, and dating profiles are all potentially being used for science. Though much of this research stems from social science and purposefully engages with the human aspects of online content, in many cases this human-created content simply becomes “data”—particularly for the creation of training datasets for machine learning algorithms. In these kinds of contexts—from algorithms trained on dating profile photos to recognize gender to algorithms that can predict mental health conditions from your tweets—traditional ethical oversight such as university Institutional Review Boards often does not apply.

But what is the line between “data” and human subjects research? In this talk, I draw from my recent empirical work to argue that the current ethical metrics that many researchers use to determine whether it is okay to collect or use online content are all wrong, particularly when it comes to the “publicness” of data or whether collection is allowed by Terms of Service agreements. I discuss findings from studies of user perceptions of researchers’ use of tweets, analysis of social media TOS, and interviews with members of vulnerable online communities. I will also touch on the broader landscape of technology ethics when it comes to data re-use and argue for a fundamental shift in how we teach ethics to future technologists and researchers.


A photo of Casey Fiesler

Dr. Casey Fiesler is an assistant professor and founding faculty in the Department of Information Science at the University of Colorado Boulder. Armed with a Ph.D. in Human-Centered Computing from Georgia Tech and a JD from Vanderbilt Law School, she primarily conducts research at the intersection of social computing and regulation, including social norms, internet law, research ethics, and ethics education.

She is currently part of the NSF-funded PERVADE (Pervasive Data Ethics for computational research) Project, devoted to empirical research to inform best practices for social computing and big data research. She is a senior fellow at the Silicon Flatirons Center for Law, Technology and Entrepreneurship, a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, and a member of the legal committee for the Organization for Transformative Works.

This event is open to the public.