Since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, skepticism about academic research involving collecting digital data has been heightened, and this is an important conversation, which focused on a study I am conducting in a recent article on Fast Company. Researchers who want to understand today’s digital world have two options for gathering data, asking users through informed consent or gathering data through corporations (e.g. Facebook, or research panel companies) who use opaque terms of service or recruitment methods. It is more transparent and open to scrutiny to partner with users, and I welcome this opportunity to explain how I am conducting this study.
I have made the study fully transparent for participants who choose to volunteer. In addition to the standard IRB process at American University:
- I developed and posted open source software to provide interactive visualizations of the web browsing data on participants computers for them to review and decide whether or not to delete before they decide to consent to its collection, which is optional.
- I also conducted an experimental study to determine whether these data visualizations actually inform users about what web browsing data contains and how it can be used. The visualizations performed significantly better than an informed consent form alone. I will be releasing the results of this study online next week.
- I am also carefully safeguarding the data I have been entrusted with. It is encrypted during transmission, and once downloaded stored in an offline hard disk inaccessible to the Internet.
There is nothing deceptive about the study, unlike the Cambridge data collection. The data will only be used for this research project. In this project so far our ads have currently reached 126,476 Facebook users, receiving 51 comments, 15 of which were related to mistrust and the Cambridge Analytica scandal. We responded promptly and, I believe, appropriately.
Doing this work involves developing trust with potential participants, and this is a difficult time to do so. Nevertheless, I believe it is vitally important that research about digital life continues and that data collection is possible for academic researchers concerned with the impact of these technologies on social life, rather than restricted to corporate use.
Source code for the research extension: https://github.com/WebHistorian/community
Public version of the extension free to use with no data collection: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/web-historian-edu-history/chpcblajbmmlbhecpnnadmjmlbhkloji and the website about this extension is available here: http://webhistorian.org/