School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

Sociology Alumna Asks: Where is Data-Driven Society Steering Us?

December, 2015
By Sharday Mosurinjohn

Alumnist - Alexandra Rosenblat

Alexandra Rosenblat

What will police-worn body cameras see that police won’t? Do anomalies in Uber’s visual representations produce phantom cars? Who’s watching you at work? These are all questions about the social, legal, ethical impact of new technologies Queen’s alumna Alex Rosenblat is asking as a researcher/technical writer at Data & Society.

After an MA in Sociology at Queen’s with Annette Burfoot and the Surveillance Studies Centre’s David Murakami Wood, Rosenblat was considering a PhD program in New York. While interviewing with a potential supervisor at NYU, she was introduced to another PhD candidate on the basis of sharing Canadian common ground. Staying in touch, he connected her to danah boyd, founder of the New York “think-do” tank Data & Society, and she soon became employee number three of an institute that’s now thirty+ strong.

A non-profit supported by the likes of Microsoft, Data & Society fulfills the dream of the newest generation of scholars – its writers get published in The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The Guardian. Offline, its audiences often include policy makers and technologists at invite-only conferences and workshops. Rosenblat even saw language from her first assignment, a primer series on the social, ethical, and legal impact of big data, appear in a presidential policy report. 

The research at Queen’s that established Rosenblat’s work in data and civil rights was about the unanticipated fallout of database linkages, with the question: why are some Canadians getting turned away from the American border for a history of mental illness? It turned out that people who had had police called because of, say, a suicide attempt, had a record in their local police database that was shared with a national central police database, and after 9/11, ultimately shared with US border security. For border security, mental health issues were associated with terrorist attacks and this was enough to prevent some Canadians from moving freely. Now, Rosenblat’s projects continue to deal with the ways that changes in information and technology affect marginalized people, such as workers in precarious employment, or victims of police violence.

She moved into the working world after her MA, but the “mix of empirical research and knowledge translation” in her job is actually “a lot like doing a PhD,” says Rosenblat. “I enjoy the freedom to work on multiple topics at once. The remarkable thing that happens is that you wind up deriving insights from linkages you would never have seen before.” It’s not surprising that Data & Society is home to more than a few “recovering academics.”

“The goal is to ground conversations that people are having in research. Media, policymakers, and academics all have different language for talking about the way, for instance, the algorithmic curation of public space affects democracy. They might share values but not know the histories of these issues.” With a background in Sociology as well as History, Anthropology, and Jewish Studies from her McGill BA, Rosenblat was already fluent, so to speak, with issues of translation and context. The new language she needed to learn was the one to use when you’re suddenly the media’s expert yourself.   

An article on "Uber’s “phantom cabs” at Vice’s Motherboard" recently propelled Rosenblat into a round of media interviews, as did an article on police accountability and body cams at the Atlantic “because these data issues are all so new that for six months you’re the expert on them.” (Cold comfort for a new media darling, but it should be mentioned here that Queen’s School of Graduate Studies now offers media training to grad students as part of the Expanding Horizons workshop series).

Rosenblat observes that when research has to move through these rapid information flows, the researcher gets to know who are the opinion makers and who to team up with just as fast. “There is a lot of knowledge sharing – ‘I’ll teach you this if you teach me that’ – a lot of skill shadowing, and you just have to take advice and figure it out really quickly.”

Looking back at the match between her training and her career, Rosenblat credits Queen’s Sociology program with offering “a lot of autonomy and well-curated resources. Professors always made time to offer useful advice and reading materials. Plus, the Surveillance Studies Centre is connected the world over. I didn’t realize what a value-add that was at the time,” she reflects.

For those considering an alt-ac future like hers, she recommends looking at the Data & Society Fellows program, which brings together an “eclectic network” “on the key issues introduced by the increasing availability of data in society” every year.

You can see more of Alex Rosenblat’s work with her colleagues on data and fairness, privacy, the future of labour, and more on the Data&Society website.