Reflections from MyData Conference 2023
Last month, on May 30th, I jumped on a plane for 5 hours to attend the MyData Conference in Helsinki, an annual event that brings together industry leaders, tech enthusiasts, and policy-makers to reflect on the present and future implications of data usage. As a marketing student, I had the fear that I would not be prepared enough to be involved in such an event. This year’s conference shed light on some profound themes, including the influence of AI on creative labour, the role of data in public infrastructure, and the need for ethical considerations in tech policy design.
- Creative Labour in the Age of AI
I dove into the data experience feeling enlightened by Payal Arora, who examined the evolving dynamics between tech and creativity. She drew attention to the existential ownership crises emerging in creative industries due to AI's increasing influence. If creativity is one of the most significant abilities of what makes us human, what will we do when a machine can be creative for us? The recent World’s Photography Award 2023, awarded to an AI-generated picture, became a case in point. This award sparked the debate around who owns the rights to AI-generated artworks. Was the photographer's idea and prompts the only thing that made that picture possible? Could anyone else have achieved the same results? Is he the owner of that photo?
Arora also emphasised the importance of freedom in fostering creativity. “Creativity has long been dictated by the aesthetic taste, values, needs, concerns, and aspirations of the West. Today, India and China alone account for the majority of the world’s users''. However, she warned of potential biases in AI-generated images, specifically the tendency to emulate the 'American smile' when creating pictures of non-American cultures. As a person who’s always smiling, I truly agree that a smile projects so many meanings depending on the context, person… even more when we talk about cultural attitudes. I have also recently seen AI’s irrelevancy, racism and misogyny when generating photos of “terrorists”, “drug dealers”, showing the outstanding need to maintain standards for AI-generated content to ensure an inclusive future and guard against the homogenization of creative work.
So, we know that protection of the creative process and ownership will be important with the use of AI. What other considerations should companies keep in mind when developing AI tools?
The Ethics of AI: An Urgent Call for Consideration
The question of ethics was put on the table by some of our partners: Pernille Tranberg (DataEthics), Alexander Galt (Inter IKEA), along with Andrew Strait (Ada Lovelace Institute), addressing the competitive rush companies get into to innovate and sell AI tools that may not be ready yet to fulfil customer expectations or align with policies and regulations. The question arose: could being ‘slow in the race’ become a competitive advantage? Taking time and effort to develop trustworthy products is a challenge, but many companies have shown that it can be the main value for powerful brands. Businesses establish respectful links with their stakeholders, why not do the same with technology? The concept of "cookie fatigue" (accepting cookies for the sake of not having to read the never-ending policies or bothering steps to reject them) highlighted the need to educate end users about their choices in sharing, personalization, and data protection.
The conference also touched upon the importance of digital equality by the hand of Katherine Townsend (Open Data Collaboratives), highlighting the prevalence of online violence faced by women. Statistics indicate that “nearly 40% of women have been harassed online, of which 85% have witnessed harassment or some other form of online violence”. It is crucial that we work collectively to create safer online spaces and ensure that women's voices are heard and respected. Verified accounts and improved reporting mechanisms can contribute to addressing these challenges effectively.
Gayan Peiris, Head of Data and Technology at the UN, joined the conversation to talk about the social implications of data sharing, as well as the environmental and economic benefits.
- The New Social Contract: Data for Better Lives and Services
I was impressed by the impactful improvements that can be achieved with effective data usage. Peiris exposed the potential of data in driving positive societal impact, from supporting refugee management in Moldova to tackling marine pollution in Ghana and shaping labour policies in Vietnam. Citizens were encouraged to manage their data through accessible apps to build efficient frameworks for policy practitioners. Yet, a gap remains between the private sector's wealth of data and government's limited access to this invaluable resource, highlighting the need for a new social contract, for regulations that contribute to better lives and services. However, as with everything, there are some limitations: governments face issues when accessing data, as well as a lack in political commitment to implement effective data policies.
Not only do we need to take care of our online world, but cherish our nature and everything it provides. A workshop by Ame Elliott on sustainable developing was also very useful to understand different ways of exploiting data. We worked on a prototype app where consumers could then share their energy consumption data with other communities and cooperatively own it to drive clean energy initiatives. Participants explored the benefits of sharing energy consumption data for research and scientific institutions to enhance energy efficiency. However, concerns were raised about potential inequalities and ensuring equitable access to the benefits of data sharing: will those households with lower income possibilities feel forced to share their data in exchange for cheaper energy services? How can we ensure that it is fair and equitable for households with different characteristics (number of family members, frequency of living in that house, building materials or age…)?
- What are companies doing to improve data democracy and data ownership?
Towards a Future of Data Democracy
The future of data governance was also a major topic of discussion, with a spotlight on Inrupt (company focused on developing and promoting the Solid platform through tools, services and infrastructure) and Solid (an individual-oriented system that allows people to store their data in decentralised stores called Pods have full control over which applications or users can access it), both initiatives led by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, aimed at decentralising the web and giving individuals control over their own personal data. Solid was praised for their efforts in moving from data monopoly towards a more democratic data ownership model. However, questions around their relationship, long-term goals, and how Inrupt could compete against Big Tech like Google or Apple (with strategies like Apple’s Differential Privacy), raised interesting questions about the future of user-controlled data: with technologies constantly evolving and a growing concern for the use of personal data, this debate will be one to watch!
The conversation on ethics extended beyond just data privacy to question the readiness of end-users and consumers to make informed decisions about their data. Are we just accepting to share our data because we do not have access to alternative privacy-friendly options?
Applied human-centric tools in organisations
One of the workshops focused on human-centric tools and architecture within an organisation. For MyData itself, this proves to be a challenge. Jean F. Queralt (CEO of the IO Foundation), Henrik Biering (CEO of Peercraft) and Iain Henderson (JLINC Labs) led the discussion together with newly appointed Executive Director of MyData, Christopher Wilson, publicly sharing the potentials and pitfalls that it takes to build an improved online environment, architecture and tool stack. Self-sovereign identities (SSI) were also discussed as a means of empowering individuals in managing their digital recognition.
Moreover, the conference emphasised the significance of empowering individuals with the right tools and knowledge. It urged us to critically evaluate the tools we use, differentiating between back-office and front-office functions. While resource limitations, budgets, and staff hours may pose challenges, we must prioritise user experience and align our choices with ethical and privacy-friendly alternatives. The priority list should consider tool functionality, user experience, and ethical standards. We need to be prepared to embrace open-source, ethical AI technologies that will arise in the future, with similar solutions to the ones we count on nowadays.
In conclusion, MyData Conference 2023 made the long journey to Helsinki totally worth it, bringing insightful perspectives into the complex and fast-evolving relationship between data, technology, and society. As we move forward, it is clear that the journey towards a future where tech serves as a force for good, both creatively and ethically, requires a continued commitment to dialogue, collaboration, and innovative thinking.
I am feeling excited for future events, ready to embrace exciting and challenging discussions at the intersection of AI, creativity, data, and ethics.
Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts. I invite you to walk with me towards a more responsible and ethical digital future.