This semester’s Data Ethics course charged students with developing creative new proposals aimed at shaping the future of Georgetown’s policies on University use of student data. Each of the final projects aimed to impact the development of these policies in a different way — from raising student awareness of data safety issues to offering a concrete structure for authentic, democratic student involvement in University policymaking on this issue — and each was presented to University CIO Judd Nicholson and a panel of outside jurors as part of the course’s final “crit.”

Crits — or critiques — are formal events during which student teams present their work to an audience for evaluation, assessment, and feedback. During a juried crit, we bring guests and collaborators into Ethics Lab to serve as formal jurors, who critique the final products students deliver. Students were expected to deliver something that the jury deems valuable, and were asked to defend their work and collaborate on improving it.

Each team was also responsible for making their project public by setting it into context, inviting and engaging in critique, and providing an opportunity for public collaboration.

The following projects were presented at this semester’s final crit:

“Code of Ethics for the Use of Student Data at Georgetown University” – a project to design a proposal for a code of ethics for the Georgetown community. Students sought to create a classroom-wide collaborative consensus on the proposed principles. Full consensus was nearly achieved!

Student Advisory Group on Data Ethics – a group created to meet and communicate with University Information Services (UIS) regarding the student perspective on data ethics issues at Georgetown. The group is being created and hosted by UIS beginning in the fall semester.

Data Awareness Week – a guerilla marketing campaign that included buttons, coffee sleeves, flyering, and an informative website. They managed to get 150 unique visitors and 50 sign ups for a data ethics listserve. This may be a repeat occurrence next spring prior to the Kennedy Institute of Ethics’s Conversations in Bioethics event, which will focus on data ethics in 2018.

Meaningful Focus Groups – a new approach to managing and developing effective focus groups. This approach was designed specifically for UIS and in particular use for GU360, a new university-wide data management platform. It is being implemented as UIS moves forward with testing GU360.

Hoya Data – a game that generates unique insights about data ethics through gameplay. This team is being invited to incubate beyond this semester. The game is fun and engaging. Students 3D printed their gameplay pieces, and laser-cut the game token currency, in Georgetown’s Maker Hub.

data ethics course update

This week in the lab’s data ethics course, Kobbi Nissim, Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown, joined students for a guest lecture on big data.

Nissim spoke about the importance of establishing rigorous practices for privacy in computation: identifying problems that result from the collection, sharing, and processing of information, formalizing these problems and studying them with the goal of creating solid practices and technological solutions. These ideas were then applied to health research and the implications privacy and consent have specific to health. Discussions centered on how guidance boards could mitigate present risks or better respond to crises spread across a wide network.

Toward the end, class got meta–the semester’s course work was split into five categories: writing assignments, design assignments, speakers, readings, and lectures. The students spent time dividing their class experiences into these categories, tagging particularly enjoyable or useful moments to generate data influential for designing future iterations of the course. Last, students broke to consult the final project rubric and guidelines for final crits of projects next week!


readings on big data + health

data ethics course update

This week in the lab’s data ethics course, students were treated to a guest lecture and project critique from GU alum Bill Erickson (BSFS, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service & JD, Northwestern University), who spoke about some of the hard tradeoffs in data security that technology industry leaders face, as well as his belief in the danger of decision-making about novel technology in the absence of a considered moral framework for action guidance.

Today’s session, billed as a “project intensive,” was primarily dedicated to an intensive mentoring session for team projects. Take a peek at some of the works-in-progress below! (Georgetown login required.)

data ethics course update

This week in the lab’s data ethics course, students explored information bubbles, social media’s role in reinforcing them, and what our increasingly polarized and fact-free public discourse means for the future of democracy. Heavy stuff!

Levity was added via an interactive exercise inspired by the Wall Street Journal’s “Red Feed, Blue Feed” feature demonstrating parallel information universes. Individual students “skewed the news” themselves prior to class, and the results were refined, aggregated, and presented as a formal feed interspersed with “skewed” stories from actual sources. Students voted on which stories they thought were student-authored, and which had appeared “in the wild” … with surprising results. Get out your smartphone and take the quiz to see for yourself!

Or, take a look directly at the full feed here and then review the key to check your score the old-fashioned way.


readings on autonomony + liberty
design tools crit

“this is the first time I’ve ended a lecture like this on a positive note…”

data ethics course update

This week in the lab’s data ethics course, students talked about the 4th amendment, and how it protects (or fails to protect) email and other materials saved on smartphones from search and seizure. Positive and negative liberty, tradeoffs, and the so-called “third party doctrine” were all covered in a free-ranging discussion with guest speaker Paul Ohm of the Georgetown University Law Center. A recent court ruling about privacy offered a glimmer of hope to individual liberty promoters, in Ohm’s view, joking that this was the first time he’d given a lecture on the topic and managed to end on a hopeful note.


readings on autonomony + liberty

episte-what?

data ethics course update

This week in the lab’s data ethics course, students explored epistemological issues (having to do with knowledge, truth, and accuracy) in access to data and information in today’s society. Topics included social media bubbles, parallel information universes, and the nature of truth in a world where so much public discourse takes place in digital and social media spaces.

Students were also given a prompt for a project on “skewed news” that will be explored in full in two weeks time… stay tuned!


readings on transparency + consent

data ethics course goes deep theory

data ethics course update

This week in the lab’s data ethics course, students pulled back to ask some big questions about the nature of consent, the value (and limits) of transparency, and the role of data management in civil, democratic society.

After a free-wheeling philosophical discussion, the class dedicated the remainder of its time to a review and analysis of student project proposals, helping teams to refine and sharpen the problems their projects — which range from a board game to a manifesto to focus group design — aim to make progress on.


readings on transparency + consent
design tools problem-finding

data ethics course update

This week in the lab’s data ethics course, students explored whether or not there might be an approach to data privacy and data management drawn from Georgetown’s identity as a Catholic, Jesuit university.

The bulk of class was dedicated to a graded presentation or “crit” of ongoing student work drawn from research-based personas or concept maps.

Jurors included:


readings on jesuit values + student data
design tools crit

data ethics course update

This week in the lab’s data ethics course, students learned about how Georgetown’s financial services office uses and stores student data, dove into some shocking stories about the so-called “right to be forgotten,” and learned that Barbie(TM) can’t keep a secret…

Guest speakers included:

  • Patricia McWade (Dean of Student Financial Services)
  • Robert Brokaw (Associate Dean of Student Financial Services)
  • Meg Jones (Assistant Professor, Communication, Culture, and Technology)

Hello Barbie was the class’s last visitor: a wired version of the classic children’s toy with the capacity to tell stories, play games, and engage in two-way conversations. When a child speaks to the doll, the conversation is recorded, transmitted via wifi, and converted into text via speech recognition software, whereupon artificial intelligence software extracts keywords from the child’s responses and triggers the doll to reply with one of thousands of pre-written lines. The doll, who has earned the moniker “surveillance Barbie” from critics, remains in Ethics Lab for casual conversation with students willing to risk a chat.

readings on consent + fair usage
design tools personas, context maps (work continued)

guest speakers take the stage in ethics lab to shine a light on georgetown’s data

data ethics course update

This week in the lab’s data ethics course, students explored Georgetown’s existing data policies by interacting with a raft of guest speakers:

  • Judd Nicholson (Vice President and Chief Information Officer)
  • Melissa Constanzi (Senior Associate Director, Undergraduate Admissions)
  • Annamarie Bianco (Associate Vice President and University Registrar)
  • LeNaya Hezel (Director of the Veterans Office)
  • Carol Day (Director of Health Education Services)

Getting a firm handle on the university’s existing policies, protocols, concerns, hopes and known issues with data handling is an essential step on the way to offering concrete recommendations for changes to that system at the semester’s end. And today’s speakers—described by course design mentor Jesse Flores as “the university’s data stewards and shepherds”—are essential to the course’s overall goal of understanding and working to protect Georgetown’s data.

readings on data privacy in the university setting
design tools personas, context maps