Data for Dummies with Tsjalling Swierstra

Door Klaas Kuitenbrouwer
Leestijd ± 6 minuten
  • 7 July 2017

Eindhoven wants to become a smart society. But how does that work? What’s going on in a society like that? Are there any good examples to learn from? DATAstudio explores the transition a city has to go through to actually become such a smart society. Each week, we present a new contribution on E52. This week: Data for dummies, the nezt steps. Read all the articles here.

Tsjalling Swierstra is Professor of philosophy of technology at the University of Maastricht and one of the experts who has contributed to the development and realization of the programs of the DATAStudio Eindhoven. Under the title Data for Dummies, he has given lectures and had conversations the past year in community centres and retirement homes – especially in Woensel-North – and in the Public Library in the centre.

The lectures were about the role of data in the daily lives of citizens, and gave rise to discussions about issues and questions encountered by Eindhoveners when it comes to data. After the holidays, the program continues with new speakers, and with the new title The Power Of Your Mouse Click.

Klaas Kuitenbrouwers and Tsjalling Swierstra look back on what was discussed during Data for Dummies.

"It is the philosophers’ task to interpret in what time we live and in what kind of society."
Tsjalling Swierstra —
professor of philosophy, Maastricht University

Who is shaping the increasingly technological society?


“The society is becoming more and more technological. Introduction of new technologies affects everyone and has far-reaching consequences in the social sphere, in politics and in the private sphere. It leads to challenges that the society must learn to deal with. I think everyone should think about it and talk about it. Both citizens and politicians need to learn what is going on and need to be able to decide how to shape these developments. But in politics, this is not discussed enough.

It is the philosophers’ task to interpret in what time we live and in what kind of society. The goal of my job as a philosopher is to have this conversation and that can not only be done within the university. I am looking for different stages to discuss technologization of the society with citizens, scientists and politicians.
That’s why I’ve recently spent some times in Woensel-North. In the nursing home of the Eerbrand, for example, in community centre ‘Trefpunt’, where you could still smell the yoga exercises of the hour before. It attracted students, officials, worried citizens, who mostly knew quite well what was going on, and – typically for Eindhoven -retired Philips engineers with a lot of insight into technology. They sometimes knew more about computers than me.
A programmer who worked for a company in Eindhoven said that he was once asked to install software on a website to make data profiles of visitors with to sell later, without those visitors knowing. That led to ethical discussions. Those are exactly the kind of conversations I’m looking for. What do you do as an employee of a company. What sort of questions can you ask and to whom?

Data for Dummies for civil servants

I also did a Data for Dummies with community officials. That was interesting. As known, Eindhoven doesn’t want to be a smart city but a smart society. Less top-down and more driven by citizens. Data collection by the municipality is an important starting point, but an objective is also to make the data available to citizens.
The assumption is that if we know a lot, we can make the quality of life in the city better for all. But that’s not really working yet. An example: you can map the air quality in a city by handing out sensors which can then be hung up on the citizens’ balconies. All data are sent to a central point where maps are getting made. The idea is that, with these maps, citizens can then show the municipality that – for example – there really is too much particulate matter and soot in the air between two and four o’clock in the afternoon, and that they can insist on measures at the municipality. Citizens are believed to be made stronger with this sort of technology.
But in practice it turns out that there are very few citizens who really have those kinds of questions. It is always a very limited number of people who are getting stronger. It is also often expected that once those data have been mapped, people all agree on what should happen. But people always seem to want different things. Homeowners near that junction want that card to disappear again, for example. It makes the value of their home decline.

Excited and worried

What I want to show, also to civil servants, is that you can be excited and worried about technological developments. Yes, better data can result in more efficient refuse collection or better air quality or a safer neighbourhood. But there is always something about it.
Data on patterns in crime in a particular area can be preventively deployed. With an additional round of a policeman in certain streets at certain hours, a number of possible crimes can be prevented. But then what happens? There are on average more policemen in those streets. And they themselves signal more problems, which are then displayed on the data card again. And so there will be more police. And so on. Conversely, in the neighbourhoods where those agents are no longer walking, they make fewer reports, because there are less signals. Therefore, when you’re just looking at the data, it seems to become safer there.

Better questions about data
Eventually, with these conversations I want to achieve that people get more power and insight to ask questions. Imagine a racist party coming to power. It requests a map about where migrants live and another map about crime numbers. The maps get compared and causes are immediately being discussed: “See, those migrants are causing crime.” You want to achieve that people (citizens, civil servants) understand that they should ask questions with that. Why is there a causal link? New immigrants often start in the poorer neighbourhoods of a city. These are also the neighbourhoods where there is more crime. But that doesn’t say anything about whether those migrants are also involved in the crimes.

Do these sort of conversations also lead to other ways of acting with citizens? Sometimes they do, but often they don’t. Proponents of open data policy often assume that knowledge is power. But unfortunately, you should also note that it often happens that, with better data, you get better insight into your own powerlessness. There are just many problems without simple solutions.

With officials I often saw too optimistic thinking about collaborations between private and public parties – cooperating with a commercial company that is making an app for neighbourhood prevention, without realising, or without clearly informing the citizen, that that company itself trades that data. Government and semi-government should stay away from such practices! Cooperation with profit-oriented companies must always be transparent and democratically monitored.

The Data for Dummies readings are, of course, only pinpricks and do not directly lead to other actions. But hopefully they will help. It possibly has the most effect on the city council – that civil servants and others involved learn to ask better questions about the quality of data; that they no longer blindly trust on “One push on the button, and we can exactly see what the problem is on the map.” Because beautiful maps can be made with bad data, but they are incorrect.

Civil servants and citizens are already starting to see that only numerical data is never enough to get a good picture of the situation. Numbers show one dimension, subjective stories and qualitative data a totally different one – which is just as important for a good understanding. Data for Dummies is also that.

The Power Of Your Mouse Click starts from autumn 2017. Follow for the exact program.

Klaas Kuitenbrouwer

> Bekijk alle artikelen van Klaas

No Comments

Meld je aan of log in om te reageren