Data ethics expert Anna Lauren Hoffmann joins iSchool faculty

anna_hoffman250.JPGHow do the data-driven systems that daily sort us, classify us, and categorize us shape our lives? When are the changes they engender good for us and when are they bad? These are questions central to the writing and research of new iSchool faculty member Anna Lauren Hoffmann, whose work digs into the social, political, and ethical implications of big data and algorithms.

“I am looking forward to working with the exceptional faculty, graduate students, and staff at the iSchool in thinking seriously about how data, data-intensive processes, and statistical knowledge impact people’s lives,” says the data ethics specialist. “What role does this kind of information play in determining people’s opportunity for well-being, for social and economic success, or for happiness? What does it mean to maintain one’s dignity or a sense of self-respect in the face of systems that are trying to put you in boxes, the better to throw advertisements at you, push news at you, or exploit you for financial gain?”

Hoffmann – a prolific, eloquent writer not only in academia but in popular media – comes to the iSchool from the University of California, Berkeley, where she was a lecturer and postdoctoral researcher exploring the moral and ethical dimensions of data, online life, and information technology. Her experiences living and working with people in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley had a significant impact on her trajectory as a scholar and writer.

“As someone whose work predominantly exists in areas of social theory and applied ethics, I had to think very hard about how I could best contribute to conversations around ethics, justice, and equality in technology,” says the assistant professor, who has a Ph.D. in information science from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “The way I think about making an impact is through writing, drawing attention to overlooked or underappreciated issues or perspectives.”

Hoffmann takes writing for audiences well beyond the academy, contributing to such major media outlets as Slate and The Guardian about issues around diversity, inclusivity, and ethics in technology. Her background in theory and philosophy adds depth to the writing. “She is a critical reader of the philosophical tradition. She uses it in unexpected ways to argue that the current discussion around data ethics has not been taking questions of respect seriously enough,” says Solon Barocas, an assistant professor at Cornell University’s Department of Information Science who also studies data ethics.

Colleagues describe her as one of the nation’s emerging thought leaders in the data ethics field. “She is becoming the go-to person for newspapers, conferences, and industry workshops,” says longtime mentor Elizabeth Buchanan, Endowed Chair in Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. “The UW iSchool students, faculty, and staff are very fortunate to have her and the amazing perspectives she brings.”

Facebook is a frequent topic in Hoffmann’s articles. “The company makes a lot of assumptions about people and about how the world works that are wrong and have caused problems,” says Hoffmann, who nonetheless counts herself among the platform’s 2 billion users. “It’s the responsibility of everybody, including scholars, to challenge those assumptions.”

Her list of lapses by the company is long. Facebook policy banning people from using pseudonyms has hurt vulnerable populations such as domestic abuse survivors and transgender users – an issue she has explored in her research. And a decade of working to maximize the site’s value for advertisers, brands, and media companies has continued to compromise the privacy and security of individuals, leaving them vulnerable to commercial and political exploitation, she argues.

Facebook is not the only tech giant making ethics blunders. Two years ago, Google, using facial recognition software, tagged black people in photos as “gorillas” in a newly introduced photo app. Pre-testing the program with diverse subjects could have red-lighted the problem.

And, as with Facebook, social applications like dating apps often struggle to account for gender diversity or the safety of vulnerable and marginalized populations.

What makes these problems so difficult to address, Hoffmann says, is the fact that they are rarely deliberate or malicious – instead, they are the result of thoughtlessness and the narrow experiences and perspectives available in an industry that is too often dominated by white men at the expense of others. “As an educator, I’m interested in how this kind of thoughtlessness gets perpetuated. Many people don’t realize that every choice they make may have ethical considerations,” says Hoffmann. “But ignorance or shortsightedness is no excuse when these systems and platforms cause real harm in the world.”

Next spring, she will teach an undergraduate class on gender and technology, encouraging undergraduates at the UW to confront these problems head-on. One area students will explore is the problem of “lean-in feminism.” “It’s this idea that women are underrepresented in technology fields and all they need to do is ‘lean in’ and emulate the processes that have allowed white men to succeed,” she says. “I want to dive into that conversation and help students think of alternatives to that vision. Rather than reshaping women for industry, what would it mean to reshape industry for women? And what does it mean to do work outside of a presumed white, binary women-and-men model?”

Hoffmann is excited about the opportunities Seattle presents for engaging with both industry and community. She and her wife grew up in the upper Midwest, and both find the “north” feel of Seattle familiar. “We like it here. It’s beautiful. And it’s our speed,” says Hoffmann, whose family is of Norwegian heritage. She has already scouted out the best salted and smoked fish in Seattle’s Scandinavian shops.

Hoffmann calls the opportunity to work at the UW iSchool in her complex field “phenomenal – a dream.”

“Information schools in general are well-positioned to tackle the problem of ethics in data science and in data-intensive cultures of research,” she says. “It’s because they have always been concerned with the human in technology, the human in information. And as a top information school globally, the UW could not be better positioned to tackle these key social and ethical issues.”