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Archive for the ‘policy’ tag

Experimenting on Human Beings

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Since the Renaissance, scientific experiments were the domain of Science. And Science had its own way of doing things. Science derived questions from first principles, proposed hypotheses that may answer those questions, and designed the methodologies that would prove or disprove those hypotheses.

That’s how Science worked, and nothing else worked quite like it. Business was art; Business was Don Draper doodling his visions on a cocktail napkin. Politics was even further afield, an art buried in the fog of war. Science and Science alone ran real experiments.

But then some Bad Things were done in the name of Science. Things that shook the foundations of Science and threatened to bring down the whole operation. To prevent those Bad Things from happening again, Science began regulating itself, introducing concepts like Informed Consent and requiring experiments to be approved by Institutional Review Boards. Most people agree that those changes were for the better.

But then other people started figuring out what Science had been doing all this time. Finance was probably the first to find it, bringing experimental methodologies to trading in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Advertising soon followed suit and has become overwhelmingly sophisticated in the past ten years. Obama’s 2008 campaign was a watershed moment for Politics, with rigorous message testing and voter data methodologies at work for the first time.

One by one, domains of Business and Politics adopted the Scientific Method. Their subjects, naturally, were human beings. But since Science only regulated itself – not everyone who used its methods – these new domains don’t have the same procedures and oversights. Any organization with an audience could run experiments on them to see what message, user flow, landing page, ad campaign or button color worked the best. Some of these experiments could have a meaningful and lasting impact on their subjects – when an OkCupid test works, more people hook up, resulting in marriage, kids, STDs, emotional trauma and all kinds of chronic effects that would put any IRB into a tizzy.

And now Facebook is getting FTC attention for doing something every savvy web-based company has done in the past fifteen years. And OkCupid and others are defending them, claiming (correctly) that everyone does it.

Now everyone doing it doesn’t make it okay, per se. But it does raise questions of what “informed consent” means. One could argue that signing up for Facebook and accepting friend requests is consenting to seeing whatever those friends may post, even if Facebook is presenting them in a way that is likely to evoke certain emotions. And the informed consent argument is even stronger with OkCupid; they’re not trying to hide the purpose of their site from prospective users.

Of course, the specific methodologies of informed consent aren’t anywhere in play. There’s no paperwork or review, just a ToS that no one ever reads.

Perhaps the problem here is not that these companies are running experiments without informed consent, but that the implementation of informed consent needs to be totally re-thought when applied to Business and Politics. Signed forms and IRBs aren’t going to work – we need a methodology that fits companies that run thousands of experiments every day and test hundreds of variables, the vast majority of which have little to no lasting impact on their users.

Perhaps rather than going after Facebook, informed consent advocates would be better off tackling the issues with ToS and getting companies (and users) to care about the documentation that already exists rather than adapting new business practices to an old scheme that was created to solve different problems.

Written by Brad Hargreaves

July 28th, 2014 at 9:23 am

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The Government Technology Gap

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My girlfriend had the unenviable task of going to the DMV this morning. I’ll spare the gory details, but I think we can all get behind the premise that the level of technology adoption (user-facing as well as internal) within governments lags well behind the level of adoption in the private sector. You see it everywhere, with a recent hot article about NYC spending $722 MM on a doomed payroll system making the rounds. But I would argue that not only is the gap bad, but it is getting worse and it threatens the very nature of our relationship with government.

It’s Getting Worse

An interesting case study is child welfare IT services, as (a) it is typically run at a state or local level, not federal and (b) its failure directly impacts the most vulnerable members of our society. In brief, child welfare caseworkers need to record what they are observing in the field — where are at-risk children, who is threatening them, and who is taking care of them. At a purely logical level, this requires a complex — but not overwhelmingly so — software application.

Before computers, all this information was recorded on paper. But in 1993, the Feds passed laws providing (monetary) incentives for states to adopt software for recording child welfare information. The software had to meet fairly specific specs in order for states to be eligible for the incentives, and states were forced to repay their incentives if they later abandoned those systems. It all seemed pretty logical to everyone at the time.

Fast forward seventeen years, and states are now running the entire child welfare systems on software that was built in the early ’90s. While rebuilding the system to reflect modern standards would in itself be a major cost, that cost is increased by orders of magnitude by the fact that the states would also have to repay the incentives they received in the early ’90s to re-architect these systems. Meanwhile, systems integrators (Accenture, Unisys and IBM, to name a few) continue to suckle from the teat of the taxpayer, knowing that a multimillion-dollar contract is to be had every time any modification needs to be made.

Meanwhile, technology in private hands is not only moving forward, but it’s moving forward at an ever increasing pace. Not only is the first derivative positive, but so is the second derivative — and likely the third as well (e.g., it is accelerating at an ever-increasing pace). Yet government seems to adopt technology as a step function, with steps significantly separated in time and limited in scope. Thus, the separation between public and private technology is quickly becoming a gulf. And the further government IT gets behind, the harder it will be to catch up, as adopting dramatically different modern technologies can require significant shifts in procedure, policy and overall thought. Five years ago, governments were operating native software and mainframes, while private entities were using SaaS platforms. Today, governments are still operating native software and mainframes while everything goes social and collaborative. How big of a leap can governments make in order to catch up, or are we now stuck?

It Threatens Our Relationship With Government

As more of our lives are dependent on interactions mediated by computers, citizens are becoming more alienated with a government that can’t adapt to our preferred media. I dread picking up my snail mail, as I know it is nothing but (a) spam and (b) stuff from financial institutions and governments. In other words, communications from people who either don’t care about how I prefer to be reached (email) or are too slow or bureaucratic to use that media. And if you fit into either of those categories, I probably don’t want to hear from you.

And as web technologies become more accessible to the masses and an entire generation of tech- and new media-savvy people enter the “real” world, the lack of modern technology and media usage by institutions designed to serve us is becoming far less acceptable. When the web was an esoteric world and it took millions of dollars to build an app, it made some sense that government didn’t have a major presence. But now it’s becoming common knowledge that a kid with a couple months on his/her hands can make a site that would take a government years and hundreds of millions of dollars to complete, if at all.

This kills the relationship between a government and its citizens. If I can’t trust my government to communicate and interact with me using technologies that even vaguely resemble the stuff I use on a day-to-day basis, how can I trust that government to provide services, spend tax money, or educate my children? Why would I support any expansion of government or its services, even if those services are (in theory) a good idea? If the DMV is using technology from the Reagan era to process my forms, why would I entrust my money, information or children to the care of the state?

I wish I could end this post on a positive note, but I’m struggling. I don’t see the American government dramatically changing their outlook on technology adoption, as this is ultimately not a technology problem — it’s a policy problem at best and a political problem at worst. And if the Obama administration — the regime of the “Geek President” — can’t effect this political change, who can?

Written by Brad Hargreaves

April 2nd, 2010 at 10:10 am

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