Privacy in Participatory Research: Advancing Policy to support Human Computation

This summary has been written by Rohin Daswani, who is Research Assistant with the Commons Lab at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.


The paper Privacy in Participatory Research: Advancing Policy to support Human Computation by Anne Bowser and Andrea Wiggins explains the important role played by privacy and privacy related policy in participatory research activities. The participatory research activities focused on in this paper are Citizen Science and Participatory Sensing. So what is Citizen Science and Participatory Sensing? Citizen Science (CS) is the involvement of volunteers in scientific research , which allows scientists to gather and analyze larger and more diverse data by using volunteers to crowdsource the data collection . In contrast Participatory Sensing (PS) uses mobile devices and phones to create interactive, participatory sensor networks that enable public and professional users to gather, analyze and share local knowledge. The applications are especially designed to provide direct utility to participants and external parties such as researchers.

Given that CS and PS are two models of human computation in which the privacy of the participant is a key concern, technological safeguards are only partial solutions for informing volunteers decisions regarding participation. Bowser and Wiggins point out that a holistic solution is required which would encompass technological safeguards along with a complete description of privacy related policies. They do this by surveying the policies of 30 participatory research projects to study how privacy related policies are presented and their alignment with actual practices. What they found was that the majority of projects had only a little understanding of the need for privacy policies. Many projects either hosted incomplete policies or described their practice inaccurately. A majority of the projects in the sample had published web content that Anne and Wiggins considered privacy policy, while a different majority had published content that the two considered terms of use.

The ethical implications of their findings for project management, design and research are plenty. The Belmont report suggests that research participants should be informed about the risks and benefits involved in participation. However, most projects did not inform participants about the types of information collected during registration and data collection nor how the information will be used. They either omitted the information or presented it in a confusing manner. These practices are contrary to respect for persons and participant primacy. Transparency is also a major legal issue that Bowser and Wiggins touch upon.

They conclude the paper by proposing a set of ethical practices for Participatory Research Design as guidelines to inform the development of policies and the design of technologies supporting participatory research. They suggest that project leaders should incorporate Ethical principles for Participatory Research Design into their decision-making process when establishing or revising policies and practices. Working with these principles will remind both project leaders and technology developers of the fundamental importance of respectful relationships with volunteers, without whom project goals cannot be achieved.

This is just a summary of the paper. To access the entire paper click here.

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