Saturday, March 21, 2015

Seminar 2 Position Statement: Dr Yuwei Lin (Media, Culture, Communication)

The Public and The Private in Doing Citizen Sciences – How do Citizen Scientists Perceive Their Privacy When They Communicate Online?

Privacy is usually understood as a fixed concept (e.g. as seen in information system design and in policy documents). To challenge this linear, one-dimensional view, some scholarly work has proposed a contextual approach to privacy, taking into account different perceptions that individuals, groups and/or institutions have on privacy and different strategies developed for managing it (Nissenbaum 2004, Fieschi 2007, Livingstone 2008, Robards 2010, Wessels 2012).

Based on this body of work that establishes a need for contextualising the concept of privacy, I'd like to open up the discussion on data and privacy by exploring the intersectionality of different moralities, interests, practices, and perceptions of privacy.

The fuzzy boundary between the public and the private has been discussed in relation to digital communication. Scholarly attempt to problematise this dualism of the public / private can be illustrated by Sheller and Urry (2003), where they argue that the perception of what is public and what is private needs to be reconceptualised:

‘these notions of the public rest on a separate basis and presuppose a particular contrasting ‘private’... we criticize such static conceptions and emphasize the increasing fluidity in terms of where moments of publicity and privacy occur’ (107-08).

I would like to extend this argument to ponder different public and private spaces. I will draw on my work on free/open source software and citizen science communities, to see how open / citizen scientists perceive public and private spaces, and manage their privacy, in relation to their practices of sharing and crowdsourcing collective intelligence.

The words 'open' and 'citizen' suggest a certain level of 'public', yet the practices of data collection, data sharing and data manipulation require embodied actions that may involve contributions of actors' labour, emotions, and bodily performance. Therefore, there is a division between 'public' and 'private' in citizen science. However, how does one negotiate this public / private boundary? How much of the private body or emotions should one share or contribute to the 'public' domain? If sharing the data and information would reveal one's identity, whereabouts, locations in the public domain, would this person still be motivated to share the data? What is a justifiable cause (e.g., solving a scientific problem) to persuade a citizen scientist to 'surrender' his / her privacy (or is there a privacy issue here?)? 

Examining the intersection of the public and the private allows us to conceptualise the engagement in citizen science as new ways of expressing one's identity and creativity (which groups citizen scientists belong, what goals they would like to achieve in their life (self-actualisation in light of Maslow's hierarchy of needs), what values they hold dearly). It also allows the researcher to critically examine the citizen science phenomenon by problematising the overtly positive perspective on 'citizen science' constructed in the public discourse, and by contextualising issues around 'public participation' and 'individual motivations'. 

Different perceptions of public / private will be analysed through narrative analysis of communications on different online citizen science communities. Specifically, I will question different levels of publicity and privacy, citizen science as a cause for sacrificing privacy, perceptions of public / private spaces – would sharing personal information and emotions on a closed mailing list for amateurs scientists considered as private (or 'semi-public')? Would a single datum that inscribes the collector's location and whereabouts at certain time be considered as private once being integrated into an aggregated large dataset? Would a digital portal with an authentication mechanism built in be deemed as public? What strategies have been developed and/or adopted to manage privacy in different public and private spaces? What is the range of information that one shares and what not (e.g., personal experiences, life stories, emotions, data, objects)? How would one resist or express themselves through exploring and negotiating the public / private in the field of citizen science?

I'd love to ponder these questions together with fellow participants at the seminar 'Debating the Technical and Ethical Limits of Secrecy and Privacy' for they would be useful for designing citizen science information systems in the future.

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