The Data Driving Democracy

Potential Solutions

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Christina Couch
Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship

This section provides a brief overview of the potential solutions experts mentioned. It is not intended to suggest which solutions are the best or most viable; it is only intended to touch on some activity happening in this space that experts deemed important.

Data Sharing Initiatives

Over the past eighteen months, everyone in civic engagement research has been talking about Social Science One, although the conversation has taken multiple turns. Conceived by Gary King of Harvard University and Nathaniel Persily of Stanford Law School as a model for mutually beneficial partnerships between private-sector platforms and independent researchers, Social Science One sought to organize a commission of senior academic advisors, a small number of whom were bound by confidentiality agreements. These advisors would act as trusted third-party data brokers and work with platforms to identify and organize relevant datasets for use in mutually agreed-upon research projects. First, the datasets would be verified to ensure that they’re not cherrypicked by the platform, then Social Science One would solicit proposal requests from the outside research community that would be reviewed by ethics and peer review boards made up of an international group of anonymous reviewers. These anonymous reviewers would evaluate the proposals for merit, but there were a couple of catches: Winning proposals can’t “violate privacy or existing legal agreements/obligations” or “put a company at a competitive disadvantage.”

Gary King, director of Social Science One and the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard as well as the Albert J. Weatherhead III University Professor at Harvard, said that the commission would provide a buffer for the company, as well as a mechanism by which researchers can verify that the data they receive are real and the platform wasn’t “just selecting datasets to make the company look good.” After a project was approved, there would be no restrictions or approval processes regarding what researchers write within the context of their proposal.

Alondra Nelson from the Social Science Research Council added that, as of August 2019, there had been no indication that a scenario that would involve rejecting a proposal based on the grounds outlined above would be a realistic possibility.

Once selected, scholars would receive funding, gain “privacy-preserving” data access, and retain the right to publish without restrictions from the company.110 Grants were supported by a handful of charitable foundations, which ranged from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to the Charles Koch Foundation.111

Social Science One sought to take a first step toward the challenge of solving data access issues for civic engagement researchers while still protecting privacy and corporate concerns. Facebook signed on as the first partner for a research initiative dedicated to studying how social media impacts elections and the democratic process.112 The first round of Social Media and Democracy Research Grant recipients was announced in April 2019.113

But the project has hit major obstacles. As of August 2019, Facebook had not yet made the promised proprietary data available, citing the inability to protect the privacy of its users. That same month, the project funders threatened to cease their funding if Facebook could not deliver data by September 30, 2019.114 The Social Science Research Council issued a statement outlining the steps they would take, which included pausing the review process and paying out full grants to current researchers regardless of data availability.115 Since August, Facebook has released some additional data, although not enough to enable grantees to complete their research. SSRC’s statement included the intention to wind down the project by the end of 2019. A December 2019 statement from Social Science One’s co-chairs and European Advisory Committee said that the data Facebook had released to that point was of “extremely limited scientific value,” and that “there is good reason to doubt whether other useful data will be forthcoming.”116 Social Science One’s Facebook partnership highlights the hurdles researchers face when working with private platforms, and also points to the difficulty that firms have in making data available to researchers when that data are drawn from users in countries with widely varying legal regulations around privacy protection.

Outside of Social Science One, some individual researchers have formed their own platform partnerships, though these arrangements are rare. For example, Politico reported back in 2018 that Facebook provided some de-identified user data to a team led by economist Raj Chetty for research on income inequality in the United States.117 Many different individuals and organizations have laid out their own projects and recommendations for solving data access issues for social science researchers. In 2017, the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking recommended establishing a National Secure Data Service that would link federal database systems and streamline access to government data.118 Though other recommendations from the Commission were enacted with the passage of the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 (H.R. 4174),119 the final bill did not include the creation of a National Secure Data Service.

Robert M. Groves, former Census Bureau director and current Georgetown University provost, and Adam Neufeld, vice president of Innovation and Strategy at the Anti-Defamation League, outlined a model similar to Social Science One’s that would make private-sector data available through an intermediary institution that could ensure privacy.120 The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Administrative Data Research Facilities Network also offers its own data sharing model.121