What is Data Autonomy about, and why do we care?
|Date:||18 April 2023|
|Author:||Oskar J. Gstrein|
Introduction: No data, no university
Without data there are no e-mails, no shared agendas, no (video) calls, no notifications, no documents, no assignments, no degree certificates, and no research contents. I would not be able to write these words and they would not be easily accessible to a broad audience without data. This is so ‘normal’ that we hardly ever think about it. Only the exceptional circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic provoked us to question the societal role of Universities in times of datafication (‘yet another streaming service’). But we must not overlook that the migration of the data of the global top Universities ‘to the cloud’ is a trend that has been going on for at least a decade, and increasingly affects all forms of education.
Today access to services of Big Tech companies such as Google and Microsoft is more important for working at the university than having access to a building, an office desk, or a roof over your head. Why? Because we can easily get our research/education/administration/communication jobs done without any of them, as long as we are able to log in to those cloud services.
The dependence on external cloud infrastructure has not gone unnoticed in recent years. Next to privacy concerns, there are worries about the environmental footprint of the cloud, which is going to increase as more advanced – and resource-hungry technologies such as ChatGPT – become mainstream. This comes with serious repercussions, since it potentially undermines the sustainable functioning of universities.
Equally troubling is the diminishing influence on the design of education, research, and administrative processes (‘How would we schedule our meetings without Google Calendar or Outlook?’). As most (applied) universities in the Netherlands increasingly use the services of two or three providers, these providers also decide which functions are necessary and will be further developed. They decide which workflows matter, and which services get priority at which cost. Most of the time this might influence how things can be done. But there is also the extreme example of online-conference service Zoom shutting down two academic conferences at US-American universities, because the corporate policy did not agree with controversial speakers or topics.
Redefining academic freedom
Universities only blossom if they are gardens where academic freedom is respected, protected and promoted. From a human rights perspective, academic freedom is a specialized version of freedom of expression, similarly to artistic freedom. Like freedom of expression and artistic freedom, academic freedom manifests the choice of society to provide individuals the freedom they need to test the limits of society, explore new ideas, and develop novel concepts. While this might also create tensions, it benefits society in the long haul since it stimulates creativity and the development of ground-breaking work.
Academic freedom requires – on the one hand – that scholars have the freedom to speak their minds and explore the frontiers of knowledge and conventions, especially when it comes to the contents featured in research and teaching. On the other hand, academic freedom requires an institution that it is capable of establishing a protected environment where individuals think independently. This means that it is not enough to let individuals speak their minds, but that the infrastructure needs to be in place that allows to make unprecedented – sometimes risky, or even costly – choices.
Data Autonomy matters: here is why
Essentially, Data Autonomy is about having a significant stake – both as individuals and as institution – in shaping the future of the university. Data is the vessel through which our thoughts and actions meet the world. Therefore, we need to make sure we control and co-create data infrastructure to the extent that is necessary to safeguard academic values and influence.
After having organized two events and talking to numerous people from different stakeholder groups within and outside the University of Groningen, here are a couple of questions that emerge:
How can we make sure that students have an environment where they can learn, develop, and fail safely? This means without data traces and measurements that profile or follow students for the rest of their lives.
How can we keep a considerable stake in the design of teaching and research practices – driven by the curiosity and talent of independent academics – rather than by corporate interests?
How can we foster ownership of research results and data sets, instead of promoting the interests of big publishing houses and obscure data brokers?
How can we make sure the value of data is supporting the fruitful development of the academic community sustainably?
How can we make sure that our data is (not) being (ab-)used to train and develop AI/Machine Learning systems which (do not) respect, protect and promote the values of the academic community?
How can we create an environment for respectfully discussing bold and controversial ideas?
By producing and sharing an increasing amount of data, we are also becoming increasingly dependent on the exchange with external stakeholders. This can be positive since it allows academia to have societal impact. At the same time, it is important that this exchange is driven by an academic spirit that is exploring and studying new ideas, and able to educate curious and creative minds that can determine their own future.
Towards a roadmap
With this Blog, we attempt to stimulate and document an open discussion about Data Autonomy at the University of Groningen. We are working towards a roadmap for ‘the right kind’ of Data Autonomy. But for this we need to develop a shared understanding of the concept. Here and in the context of more local and international events, Data Autonomy will be explored from the perspectives of students, teachers, and researchers, among others. This is important to create a fruitful academic community, where people can be(come) themselves, study society and nature, and develop in a self-determined and dignified way.