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Jul 22, 2022

In Episode 9 of Series 7, Todd is joined again by Ben Lucas, Director of 3DI at the University of Nottingham, funders of this series. Together they reflect on some of the key themes and ideas to emerge from Series 7 of The Rights Track about human rights in a digital world.



Todd Landman  0:01  

Welcome to The Rights Track podcast, which gets the hard facts about the human rights challenges facing us today. In series seven, we've been discussing human rights in a digital world. I'm Todd Landman. And in the last episode of this fantastic series, I'm delighted to be joined for the second time by Ben Lucas, Managing Director of 3DI at the University of Nottingham, a hub for world class data science research and funders for this series of our podcast. Ben helped kick off series seven at the end of last year talking about some of the challenges and opportunities created in a data driven society and the implications for our human rights. Today, he's here to help us reflect on some of the key themes that have emerged from this series. So welcome, Ben, it's great to have you on this final episode of The Rights Track.

Ben Lucas  0:46  

Great to be here. Thanks very much.

Todd Landman  0:48  

So last night, we were at a launch event for INFINITY, which is an inclusive financial technology hub being launched here at the University of Nottingham, we had a bucolic setting at the Trent bridge, cricket ground, which I say was quite historic. But some of the messages I heard coming out of that event last night, really gave me hope for the promise of digital with respect, particularly to helping people who are currently excluded from financial technologies or finance more generally. And the ever, you know, sort of problem of people getting credit ratings getting access to finance, I wondered if you could just reflect on what was shared last night around the the positive story that could be told around using technology to give people access to hard to find finance?

Ben Lucas  1:29  

Yeah, absolutely. So I think the central issue with financial inaccessibility is really the fact that people get trapped in this really bad cycle, and perhaps don't have savings, and then you lean more on credit options, for example. And then you become more and more dependent, if you like on credit options. Equally, there are also folks who are excluded from accessing credit completely or at an affordable rate. In the first instance, which obviously changes very much the quality of life, let's say that they're able to enjoy the things they're able to purchase, and so on. So really, the mission of projects like INFINITY, which is focusing very much on this idea of inclusive financial technology, is trying to boost accessibility to everything from tools that help people save to tools that help people spend to a breaking that some of these negative cycles that cause people to end up in not so great financial situations. And yeah, it's really leveraging and learning from, you know, all the wonderful developments in, you know, things like analytics and new financial services, products, especially those that are app based, that we use in the rest of the financial services world, but applying them for good, basically, so very much consistent with this data for good message that we've been speaking about in this series.

Todd Landman  2:51  

Right that's really interesting. So it's a data driven approach to understanding the gaps and inequalities in a modern society that does have the data infrastructure and technological infrastructure to give people access. But really the data driven approach lowers the barriers to entry for those folks. And I was quite struck by that there was a colleague there from Experian, which is a credit rating agency talking about the millions of people who either don't have online bank accounts don't have access to the right kinds of technologies, and don't have the kind of credit rating that gives them access to the lower priced financial products out there, which in sort of ordinary terms means they're paying a much higher interest rate to borrow money than people that do have a credit rating. So one solution was to use data analytics and a data driven approach to understand their position to boost their credit rating in a way that would give them access to cheaper finance. Did I get that right?

Ben Lucas  3:40  

Yeah, that's exactly right. I mean, the central thing in financial services and lending is obviously managing their risk exposure with any individual consumer, but then also across, you know, their entire consumer portfolio. And I think, you know, one of the big opportunities in the inclusive FinTech space slash probably what we're going to see going forward is credit rating agencies and credit rating support products, looking for other variables or indicators that, you know, can really paint a clearer picture of individual consumers, and perhaps even say, well, actually, there's not so much risk with this consumer because there is other factors that the usual you know, bog standard algorithm doesn't pick up on, and maybe we don't have that risk exposure, maybe we can offer them, you know, financial products or lending products at a better rate, you know, that colleagues spoke also about Experian's boost product, for example, and I won't go into an advertisement for that, but yet a really interesting example of how by sort of extending the available data and what we do with that, you know, it's possible to sort of calibrate and tailor solutions that are a win win that reduce the risk for the credit provider, but give additional consumers more accessibility. And I think the other big piece just to detail briefly, within data driven and financial research, you know, some of the work that colleagues in the INFINITY team have been doing around, you know, helping to understand that an aggregate and in a privacy preserving way, where perhaps people are making not so great financial decisions. So being able to, you know, hopefully in the future help flag you know privacy protecting way to consumers when they're not making great decisions, which can be everything from wasteful over the top expenses to things like you know, too much gambling or unhealthy eating, for example. So certainly a very, very exciting space.

Todd Landman  5:33  

No, it's really fascinating, and it resonates well with many of the themes we've heard in this series of The Rights Track. So I'm going to just think about putting these things into groupings or clutches of perspectives if I may, so that you made reference this idea of data for good and of course, we had some guests on the podcast this series, including Sam Gilbert, who talked about the ability for digital transformation and data driven approaches to unearth previously unknown factors and public health benefits, and it could be social justice benefits and other benefits from leveraging data that don't normally talk to each other in a data analytic way. Wendy Betts told us about using really preserving the chain of evidence using visual imagery, but that date stamp timestamp location stamped and then preserving the metadata that sits behind an image for verification for the investigation of human rights abuse and human rights crimes. Amrit Dhir showed us in the United States how his organisation Recidiviz uses data from prisons to actually bring greater sense of justice to prisoners, as well as parolees. And finally, Diane Coyle, the world famous economist not only reflected on the many economic transformations that have happened with the digital disruption, but also made the case for universal access to online life and being on the grid almost as a basic human right, in the ways that access to information access to health care, access to services need to be provided. And certainly during COVID-19, we've learned that many people were excluded from those services precisely because they didn't have the right internet connection, or at least cannot afford to have the right kind of internet connection. So I just wondered what your general reflections are on that general theme of data for good. And what can you tell us about what you think listening to the guests that we've had during this series?

Ben Lucas  7:21  

Yeah, I mean, I really liked the way that Sam sort of sets the scene in his book, Good Data; An Optimist's Guide to our Digital Future. I think that nobody, of course likes to have their privacy compromised, at an individual level. But the reality is, when we look at, you know, the things we can do when we have data at scale across, you know, large populations, there's a lot that can be achieved, whether that's in something like inclusive FinTech, whether that's in protecting human rights by combating modern slavery, whether that's to do with health data in a system like the NHS. Yeah, I don't think anybody likes to have their privacy compromised, obviously, at that individual level. But if there's a sort of way to communicate that greater good message, I'm not trying to encourage people to willingly give away their data for free, quite the opposite. But I think that's the sort of big debate the both commercial and academic data scientists, you know, that's really the arena in which we work. Because there are a lot of benefits to be had. When we think about sort of data at scale. Equally, we need to protect, you know, individuals and communities. I think, you know, it's really great in this series to hear about, you know, things like eyeWitness up and Recidiviz and some of these platforms that I think are managing that really well and really getting that good out of the data. Yeah, I think that's been really nice. There's a lot we can say also, on the subject of, I think this is more of a frontier thing. But artificial intelligence in particular, which came up a few times, which I think is going to be the next well already is actually the next big frontier in terms of talking about, you know, transparency and fairness, especially because we're applying these tools to these large datasets.

Todd Landman  9:04  

Right. And I also came across a very interesting project and another group here at the University of Nottingham. It's within the Nottingham University Business School. And it's a neo-demographic lab or N/Lab, which works on you know, big data science projects around harnessing unknown information from pre existing datasets. And there was a partnership with OLIO, which is an app that allows people to trade food that they're not going to need so surplus food sits in people's houses, other people need food. So this app allows people to share food across the app, and to actually make best use almost the circular economy, if you will, in sharing food. Now, quite apart from the pragmatics and the practicalities of sharing food between households. Of course, the app collects data on who needs food and who has food, and that then allows the geo-mapping of food poverty within particular districts and jurisdictions within the United Kingdom. Can you say a bit more about that project and does this fit within the category of data for good? 

Ben Lucas  10:03  

Absolutely. I mean, that's an absolutely fantastic piece of work, you know. And obviously, the purpose of that platform and all that work is to look at both combating food inaccessibility and food poverty, on the one hand, and on the other, combating food waste. So really, yeah, absolutely a fantastic example, as far as data for good and also doing the right thing by people in society. I think it is also a great example of this idea that we can, you know, log data from sharing platforms, and really whatever platform in an ethical way, you know, in the work those that colleagues at N/Lab are doing, you know, so it's all privacy preserved data. It's possible to get a, you know, useful enough geotagged picture of how the sharing is taking place, such that it can be understood at a network level, but it's not giving away, you know, exact locations, it has no identifiers of who's linked to it. But even just with that sort of network exchange level data, you know, it really tells a very interesting story about how this system works. And, you know, as you said, I mean, this is very much in the peer to peer sharing economy space, which is a relatively new idea. So it's also from an academic point of view, very important and very useful to be doing research to understand these entirely, relatively new kinds of systems.

Todd Landman  11:26  

So essentially, because the heat map that that project produced was for a belief Haringey Council in Greater London, and I guess, you know, knowing what I know about data, this could be scaled up for all jurisdictions, the United Kingdom. And beyond that the heat map tells you areas of food poverty, but also could inform government as to where to put resource and where dare I say levelling up funding could be targeted to help those most in need.

Ben Lucas  11:53  

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, as I understand it, that works, you know, been incredibly useful for the platform and how it's looking to grow and continue to be successful. But yeah, absolutely. That's really another key thing here is the value these platforms have for policymakers for government, indeed.

Todd Landman  12:08  

Great. So we've had the data for good story, I now turn our attention to the data for bad story, because we had some guests that were very suspicious, sceptical and were critical of this burst and proliferation and digital transformation and the production of data second by second day by day, week, by week, year by year and two of our guests had actually different perspective on this, so Susie Alegre has this fantastic new book out with Atlantic books, she called Freedom of Thought. And what she was really concerned about was not only the history of analogue ways in which people's freedom of thought had been compromised, but also the digital ways in which freedom of thought might be compromised by this digital revolution. And for her, her concern, really is that there are unwitting or witting ways in which people's thought patterns might be manipulated through AI and machine learning. And we use popular examples of consumerism, consumer platforms, such as Amazon and other shopping platforms where not only does one get bombarded by advertisements, but actually gets suggestions for new things to buy based on patterns of spend in the past. And there is cross referencing between platforms. And I think Sam Gilbert also addressed this thing about this micro targeting and cross referencing. So if I search for something on one platform, it shows up on another one, when I'm sort of, you know, at least expecting it to do so. A bought some shoe laces the other day, they came to the house within a day. So I had that lovely customer experience. And yet, when I went on to a CNN website to look at the news headlines, the first ad that popped up was for shoe laces. So can you say a bit more about the unease that people have around these sharing platforms and the worry that our thoughts are being manipulated by this new technology?

Ben Lucas  13:45  

Yeah, I think this idea of freedom of thought or, you know, illusion of decision freedom is a really important one, when we're talking about the internet, and especially, you know, one can imagine, you know, as was evidenced with the Cambridge Analytical scandal back a few years ago, you know, this becomes especially dangerous when we're talking about political messaging. I think it's important that we, as users of the internet, approach the internet with a healthy degree of scepticism being a bit, you know, cautiously analytical, and occasionally taking a step back and thinking about what the implications of our behaviour online, including simply consuming content consuming information really are. The reality is most of if not all of the online platforms that we use be that social media, ecommerce, or whatever. They are designed to achieve immersion. They're designed to keep you spending more time and if you're spending time in the wrong kind of echo chambers, or if you're getting exposed to messages from bad actors. You hear these stories of people going down all sorts of terrible rabbit holes and things and this is how conspiracy theories and so forth proliferate online. Yeah, but certainly even just for the regular internet user, we all definitely need to be thinking about where is information coming from? Is it from reliable sources? Is the intent good? And do we indeed have that decision making freedom? I think is the really important thing, or is someone trying to play with us?

Todd Landman  15:13  

Well, it's a really interesting answer. And it links very nicely to our episode with Tom Nichols, because he was saying that there's this tendency towards narcissism. And that's, you know, certainly during COVID, people had more time inside, they had more time to dedicate to being online. But at the same time, the rabbit holes that you're worrying about really raised too high relief. And so that retreat into narcissism, the idea that if you're going to post something, you're only going to post something negative, critical and maybe sowing division by posting those critical comments. But you also in your answer talked about the power of particular individuals. And I guess, I have to address the question of Twitter in two ways. So Tom made this observation of Twitter is this sort of, you know, you have now have 240 characters to, you know, vent your spleen online and criticise others, but also that's powerful platform to mobilise people. And I say this in two ways. The first is that the revelations from the January 6 committee investigating the events that led up to the insurrection against the US Capitol was putting a lot of weight this week on just the number of followers that former President Trump had, and a single tweet in December where he said, you know, come to the Capitol on January 6, it will be wild. And then there were an array of witnesses paraded in front of the committee, from far right groups from the Oathkeepers, and other groups of that nature, who were saying, but actually, we saw this as a call to arms. So there was a nascent organising taking place, but there's almost this call to arms issued by a single tweet to millions of followers that really was, you know, the spark that lit the fire and wonder if you might just reflect on that.

Ben Lucas  16:50  

Yeah, I think for anyone currently also trying to keep up with slash decipher the story in the news about Elon Musk, putting in an offer to buy Twitter, which has now fallen through, I would use that lens to sort of explore this because one of the goals that I think he was seeking to achieve in taking over Twitter was really opening up its potential for free speech further. But yeah, for anybody sort of observing. That's a really tricky one. Because sometimes when the speech is, well, I mean, that there should be free speech. But people should be saying, you know, hopefully nice things within that freedom, and not denying the rights of others and not weaponizing free speech to stir up trouble. I think it's really, you know, we touched on this in the first episode of the series as well, the really big question with social media is, who's the editor in chief? Is it everybody? Or is it nobody, and which is the better format? 

Todd Landman  17:42  

Yeah, and we talked about that unmediated expression and unmediated speech and that Martin Scheinin, as well, as Tom Nichols talked about how traditional media organisations have had that mediating function, and the editorial function, which is lost when you have an open platform in the way that Twitter has, even though they did in the end, deplatform the former President. But I want to get back to that. I mean, you know, the task of the January 6 committee is not only to say we think there's a causal link between this tweet and people doing things, but they will also need to demonstrate the intentionality of the tweet in and of itself. And I think that's a major concern, because there's certainly ambiguity in the language saying, you know, come to the Capitol, it's going to be wild doesn't necessarily convert into a mass uprising with weapons and an insurrection. So there's a tall order of, I would say, legal proof, above reasonable doubt that needs to be established, were one to go down that legal route. But if we look at Elon Musk, I mean, here's one person who's exceptionally wealthy in the world who can buy an entire platform. And the concern that many people have is can one individual have that much power to acquire something that powerful, and we don't know if the deals fallen through, because there are some legal wranglings going on at the moment about whether he could actually withdraw at this late stage in the purchase process. But be that as it may, I wonder if you might just reflect on this ability for a very wealthy single individuals take control of a platform as powerful as Twitter.

Ben Lucas  19:10  

So I think it's a really complicated one, it's really one of the most complicated questions within the social media space, you know, because these platforms are ultimately businesses. There's a founder, there's a CEO, there's a board, there's that leadership, and hopefully accountability and responsibility. It is really a tough one, you know, one wonders about a future where, you know, in the same way, you've got the Open AI Foundation, for example, or you've got, you know, other truly sort of open peer to peer kind of platforms. If we think about how the internet is or technology is trying to decentralise things like finance in the future, wonders if there's sort of an alternative model that could solve some of these problems. I think the narrative so to speak specifically about Elon Musk that he's been putting forward, was really just to open up Twitter even further taking that sort of laissez faire kind of approach and just you know, letting free speech just sort itself out. And again, free speech is and can be a good thing. But sadly, when people engineer these kind of messages to avoid legal accountability, but are implying, you know, some sort of stirring up of trouble, when people engage in narcissistic sort of messaging when people engage in putting forward, you know, campaigns, you know, engineering very, very strong emotions, like fear and anger, obviously, that can get out of control very, very quickly. The reality is, I'm not qualified to come up with the solution. And I, sadly, I don't know who is. Yeah.

Todd Landman  20:36  

Well, that's interesting, because we have some guests that were suggesting a solution. And if I listened to you speak about the Elon Musk agenda to open up in a laissez faire way, it's almost the invisible hand of the information market, you know, if we go back to economics, and one tenant of economics at least has been that the invisible hand sort of guides markets, and the pricing and equilibrium that comes from supply and demand produces a regulatory outcome that is beneficial for the most people most of the time, it's a somewhat naive view, because there's always winners and losers and economic transactions. So counter to this idea of the invisible hand of the information market, we had quite an interesting set of thoughts from Martin Scheinin, and from Susie Alegre on the need for regulation. And that really does take us back to the beginning of this series of The Rights Track where you made the observation that tech is advancing more quickly than the regulatory frameworks are being promulgated that there's this lag, if you will, between the regulatory environment and the technological environment. So I wonder just for your final reflections, that really what both Martin Scheinin and Susie Alegre are saying that if tech is neutral, we need to go back to ethics, morality law and a human rights framework to give us the acceptable and reasonable boundary conditions with which all this activity needs to be thought about. 

Ben Lucas  21:56  

Yeah, exactly. I mean, it really does come down to, you know, well constructed regulation, which is obviously complicated, especially when, you know, most major social media platforms have a global footprint. So it's then how to ensure consistency across the markets they operate in. I think a lot of the regulatory frameworks are kind of there for the offline world. And the main thing, yeah, that we were sort of getting at in the first episode of this series is really that because technology moves so fast, because these platforms grew so quickly, you know, there are laws to stop people, no one can just go into the town square and start, you know, hurling obscenities, you know, in public, but for some reason, you know, it happens millions and millions of times a day on social media platforms. So I think, yeah, regulation really is key here. But the other thing is, I would say the people that misuse, the definition and excuse of free speech, should actually really look up the definition of free speech again.

Todd Landman  22:57  

Well, it's this idea of doing no harm. You know, I think I mentioned this notion of a Hippocratic Oath, if you will, for the digital world that you can engage but do no harm. And what people conceive and perceive as harm, of course, is open to interpretation. But that's a general kind of impulse behind this. And you know, this distinction between the offline world and the online world is also really, really important. So Tom Nichols invites us to maybe get off the grid occasionally go back into our community, say hi to our neighbours, volunteer for things and experience humanity face to face in the offline world a bit more than were experiencing in the online world. And of course, the appeal to morality, ethics, law and the human rights framework is going back to you know, basic philosophy, basic conceptions of rights, basic conceptions of law, to make sure that, you know, our offline world thoughts can be applied to our online world behaviours. So, you know, these are super deep insights. And as the world progresses, as technology progresses, as the interconnections between human beings progress in ways that we've seen over the last several decades, through the medium of digital transformation, and this ever expanding digital world, it does make us pause at this moment to say that actually reflect on human dignity, human value, integrity, and accountability and responsibility for the kinds of things that we do both within the offline world and the online world. And you've given us much to think about here Ben certainly across the many episodes of this series, you kicked us off with this great, you know, offline - online regulation versus tech dichotomy that we all face. We've heard from so many people, evangelising the virtues of the digital world but also raising significant concerns about the harm that can come from that digital world if we allow it to run unchecked. So for now, it's just my job to thank you Ben for coming back on this final episode, giving us a good wrap up set of reflections on what you've heard across the series. And thank you ever so much for joining us today on this episode of The Rights Track.

Ben Lucas  25:02  

Thanks so much.

Christine Garrington  25:04  

Thanks for listening to this episode of The Rights track podcast which was presented by Todd Landman and produced by Chris Garrington of Research Podcasts with funding from 3DI. You can find a full transcript of this episode on the website at together with useful links to content mentioned in the discussion. Don't forget to subscribe wherever you listen to your podcasts to access future and earlier episodes.