By Petra Plasilova J.D. ’16
Do you get annoyed by websites that require you to register and create a full user profile, including personally identifiable information, even to complete a minor purchase? Does it unsettle you that moments after you search for that perfect vacation spot on Google, your Facebook feed fills with ads offering you discounted plane tickets to get there? As the use of big data collection and analysis increased in both the private and public sectors, so did public debate on the ethics and even legality of the practice.
Following numerous recent hacks and leaks of customer data at large retailers and banks, the public has become understandably skeptical of the data collector’s ability to appropriately protect sensitive data and consumer’s privacy. Amid the flurry of negative press and research reports, few have focused on the potential benefits and opportunities big data offers. For example, researchers’ ability to store and process large amounts of data have made it possible for NASA to monitor climate change more accurately, and the need to store large amounts of data has helped drive infrastructure development and the move to cloud computing. I used to be very skeptical of statements proclaiming the benefits of big data. Until I met a person who showed me that big data truly has potential to drive positive change within our own immediate community.
I met Elsa Sze one morning in mid-September. A motivated graduate of the Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School, she filled the room with energy as she passionately described the mission of her organization, Agora Townhall, Inc. (Agora). Through her coursework and prior experience in the Obama re-election campaign, Elsa identified a key problem – disenfranchisement of constituents – and decided to fix it.
An experienced consultant, Elsa knew the answer lay in accurately diagnosing the problem. She quickly realized the reason why many people did not engage in community dialogue on important issues was not because of lack of engagement or interest. People were simply too busy to attend town halls or rallies. For many, social media have become the primary way of voicing their opinions. Yet, the government and politicians have failed to accordingly adapt and create online fora in which important civic dialogue could take place. Luckily, Elsa saw the gap and stepped in to fill it.
Agora provides an easily-accessible online platform for individuals to publicly raise and discuss issues important to them and their community. In addition to discussion boards, the Agora website and app also offer a town hall functionality, which enables government officials and politicians to host online debates and discussions on various topics. Agora users have the ability to join these town halls and share their opinions, or simply “listen in” by reading the town hall host’s contributions and other users’ comments. The feature has attracted officials from as near as Somerville and as far as Libya to Agora, and has helped drive dialogue on topics as diverse as local construction and constitutional reform. So what does this all have to do with big data?
To empower as many members of the local and global community as feasible, Elsa developed a business plan that capitalizes on Agora’s ability to collect and analyze meaningful data about the site and app’s users. With the users’ permission, Agora captures data on its users’ demographics, views, and areas of interest. Elsa’s team of analysts produces reports and statistics for select clients, mostly politicians, which enables them to better understand their constituents. As a result, politicians can make more inclusive decisions that reflect the needs of the aggregate community, rather than those of a few powerful constituents. Agora’s data analytics function thus gives individuals a unified credible voice when it comes to important matters impacting their community, as the algorithm turns isolated one-off chatter into actionable insights.
While Agora needs to turn a profit, like any other business, Elsa is committed to respecting the users’ privacy. She has carefully crafted Agora’s data analytics approach to be in line with her ethical beliefs. As Elsa said to me during our first meeting, “There are many apps that are very creepy. Agora is not and will not be one of them.”
One of the key professional responsibilities of lawyers is to provide service to all clients, regardless of our own personal beliefs on the subject of the matter. When I read my Transactional Law Clinics (TLC) colleague’s notes from her intake interview with Agora after being assigned the matter, I became nervous. Privacy and user data protection are issues I deeply care about and like many, I find the overly personalized ads on Facebook disturbing. I doubted my ability to remain objective and effectively represent Agora, especially when it came to negotiating contracts about user data analytics. Ultimately I resolved to stay on the matter and I am glad I did.
Working with Agora through the TLC was one of my most challenging and rewarding experiences at HLS. I learned how to be a real lawyer, something that most other courses unfortunately fail to teach us. But most importantly, TLC gave me an opportunity to help an extremely talented young entrepreneur execute her vision for improving the world around us and giving a platform to drive change to those who did not have one before. Phil Webster, Supercomputing the Climate: NASA’s Big Data Mission, CSC World, available at http://www.csc.com/success_stories/flxwd… (last visited March 5, 2015).  Elena Kvochko, Four Ways to Talk About Big Data, World Bank, available at http://blogs.worldbank.org/ic4d/four-ways-to-talk-about-big-data/ (last visited March 31, 2015).