Humanization vs. invasion of privacy

As a professional demographer, and one who studies and collects data on people for a living, one of the issues I frequently get asked about is privacy.  The topic has always been important in my work for the Weldon Cooper Center and it also has been front and center for the U.S. Census Bureau in recent years.  For example, in 2010 the Republican National Committee passed an official resolution stating that many of the Bureau’s activities are “overreaching,” “intimidating,” and “dangerous” in regards to privacy, particularly for its American Community Survey (ACS).

While I share some of the RNC’s concerns about the mandatory nature of the ACS (although the Census Bureau very rarely enforces any sort of penalty for not answering), my primary concerns over privacy lie elsewhere.  The mountain of new data gathered by private corporations on what we eat, what we read, where we travel, what we buy, and how we surf the internet is bought, sold, and traded with impunity, often without us knowing about it.  The U.S. Census Bureau is a bastion of privacy and protection compared to what the burgeoning data mining and micro-targeting industries do on a daily basis.

Jer Thorp, the resident “Data Artist” for the New York Times, seems to be well aware that we don’t always have control over all of the data about us that flows between organizations.  Thorp recently gave an engaging presentation in Vancouver calling for the “humanization” of data and bringing more artists, writers, and designers into the conversations we have about data.  By “humanizing” Thorp means using data visualization and artistic techniques to bring to life the stories that lie behind data.

What strikes me is the central issue in Thorp’s talk, which is taking “ownership.”  Taking ownership of our data.  By humanizing and making accessible the stories within our data, we are more readily able to understand it…and then control how it is used and circulated.  I think Thorp is right to say that humanizing our data, making it something other than alien data points exchanged by faceless corporations or governments, changes attitudes about privacy.  My hope is that this humanization both transforms our thinking about the value of data and leads to further scrutiny of those who collect, study, and disseminate it.

This hope has an enormous impact on how I approach my job as a demographer.  By presenting data and results in more accessible, more interactive, and yes, more beautiful forms, my audience comes to better understand the value of, say, the ACS or other data sources.  It also engages audiences in discussions on what kinds of information should and should not be collected from people in our data-hungry, but guarded, society.  This is why data visualization and the “humanization” of data are central components of my work and why Thorp’s talk is as timely as it is important.