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"Data Autonomy: Let's do it!" – A summary of the Launch event of the Data Autonomy Project

Date:28 June 2023
Author:Oskar J. Gstrein

Introduction

The Data Autonomy Launch Event, titled "Data Autonomy: Let's do it!", took place on June 22, 2023, from 09:30 to 12:30 at the newly opened House of Connections at the Grote Markt in the city centre of Groningen. The event was a collaborative effort between the Center for Information Technology (CIT) and the freshly established Jantina Tammes School of Digital Society, Technology, and AI (JTS).

Attendees from all kinds of stakeholder groups from within the University of Groningen (UG), as well as regional and national stakeholders from the business and governmental sector engaged in an active dialogue about the meaning and importance of data autonomy. Together they explored challenges and opportunities within the UG as an organisation, while placing data autonomy in a broader national and international context.

Keynote speakers

The director of the CIT Prof. Ronald Stolk, together with the director of JTS Prof. Ming Cao opened the event in a festive sphere. Next, the academic lead of the data autonomy project Dr. Oskar Gstrein held a presentation summarising the state-of-play of the project and presented open questions to stimulate a discussion among the participants of the event. In particular, Gstrein highlighted the necessity to increase choices by identifying (Open Source) alternatives, map the current data flows at the UG in greater detail, while continuing a multi-stakeholder dialogue to find an active understand of how a ‘datafied version’ of the UG should look like.  

Next, Prof. José van Dijck held a presentation on how data autonomy places itself in the broader landscape of public values, and why it is crucial that the stake of Dutch educational institutions in the Netherlands increases. Van Dijck – a 2021 NWO Spinoza price laureate – presented some of her research that she carries out on establishing a value-based digital society. She emphasised the importance of being able to shape public spaces online, including in educational institutions.

Finally, Dr. Erik Huizer – CEO of the pan-European GÉANT network for scientific excellence, research, education and innovation – gave  the participants an insight on efforts to re-enforce and expand European data infrastructure. He presented ongoing initiatives and plans on the European level to enhance data autonomy.

Interactive discussion

Following the presentations, the participants were encouraged to discuss one of ‘three futures’ to explore the meaning data autonomy at the UG. These different visions for datafied futures were presented in three different rooms. Once participants entered a room to discuss one possible future, neutral moderators presented statements that were distilled from the discussions held during earlier stages of the project, such as the ‘Let’s talk Data Autonomy’ event on 8 March 2023. The three possible futures revolved around the themes:

  • Increasing transparency and making better agreements with Big Tech companies such as Google or Microsoft.
  • Exploring Open-Source options and moving essential UG digital infrastructure/services away from Big Tech companies to increase ownership of the digital infrastructure.
  • Work towards a hybrid situation, where the UG uses both Open Source and commercial solutions while trying to strike a balance that promotes data autonomy.

Art & Data Playground

Belgian artist Dries Depoorter attended the event and presented his artwork called "Quick Fix." The installation allows users to gain followers or likes on Instagram rapidly. This provokes reflection on the value of interaction on social media networks such as Instagram, and allowed for some lighter exchange among the participants during a day packed with new ideas and inspiring conversations.

Additionally, the ‘data playground’ section featured a large screen presenting the project ‘How normal am I?’. Once a user gives access to the camera it can ‘experience how "artificial intelligence" measures someone’s face’. The algorithmic system gives the person in front of the camera a ‘beauty score’, predicts how long this person will live, or estimates the Body Mass Index (BMI).

Next steps

The event was concluded with a moderated interactive session, where participants openly discussed some of the statements associated with the different futures presented. Finally, member of the board of the UG Hans Biemans concluded the event, congratulating the organisers on organising a successful event and acknowledging the efforts put in. Biemans emphasised the need to increase choices in order to address this ‘wicked problem’, and highlighted the need to establish national and European coalitions to work on data autonomy.

About the author

Oskar J. Gstrein
Oskar J. Gstrein

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