U.Va. Holds First National Conference to Tackle ‘Big Data’ Ethics, Law and Policy

How will “big data” change science and the nature of knowledge? How will it affect health care, transportation, business and social networks? Who, if anyone, owns data? Is there a threat to privacy when personal data is buried in massive, processed data? What are the value-biases built into particular ways of processing big data?

Such questions surrounding big data research are the subject of the first National Conference on Big Data Ethics, Law and Policy, happening Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the University of Virginia.

This conference – free and open to the public – will be devoted to discussion of the big ethical, legal and policy issues around big data.

The conference is sponsored by U.Va.’s Data Sciences Institute and its Center for Big Data Ethics, Law and Policy. Just as the center has 21 faculty representing more than a dozen disciplines across six U.Va. schools, the conference will look at these big questions from cross-disciplinary perspectives, said center director Deborah G. Johnson, Ann Shirley Carter Olsson Professor of Applied Ethics in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

The conference’s two keynote speakers, Danah Boyd and Michael Zimmer, are each among the world’s leading experts on social media and on Internet privacy and data ethics, respectively, said center co-director Siva Vaidhyanathan, Robertson Professor and chair of the Department of Media Studies.

Boyd is the author of “It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens,” a deep empirical study of how young people use social media in their lives. She will discuss “What You Think You See: Privacy, Ethics, and Interpretation in an Era of ‘Big Data.’”

Zimmer’s talk is titled “Infrastructure, Code, and Justice: Gaps in our Ethical Discourse on Big Data.” Zimmer studied under Vaidhyanathan at New York University and is now an assistant professor in the School of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he directs the Center for Information Policy Research.

After the Edward Snowden revelations about government surveillance capabilities, “We are at the beginning of a big national conversation on government surveillance and the role private companies play in that surveillance,” Vaidhyanathan said. “This is a prime moment for scholars to intervene in these discussions and try to work our way through these competing values of privacy and security, and hopefully come up with a system that can both protect our bodies from terrorist attacks and protect the integrity of our minds – our ability to control what the government and other people know about us, our thoughts and desires, and our ability to try on unpopular ideas.” 

The Center for Big Data Ethics, Law and Policy “is fundamental to doing big data the U.Va. way,” said U.Va. Executive Vice President and Provost John Simon. “Our leading scholars of law, policy and ethics will be applying their expertise to the emerging challenges of big data research, including how big data research complicates the scientific method and philosophy of science, and how big data collection, particularly in the health sciences, has ethical hazards as well as potentially life-changing benefits.

“By integrating the study of law, policy and ethics with the actual practice of big data research across the University, we are mixing theory and practice, we are collaborating across disciplines, forcing our scholars to speak in clear terms that resonate across fields and translate easily to the larger public and policy spheres.

“This spirit of full engagement across disciplines and beyond Grounds is the U.Va. way.”

In addition to the keynote talks, the conference will also feature two panel discussions.

The morning panel discussion of “Ethical, Legal and Policy Issues in Big Data and New Media,” will be moderated by Chris Ali, assistant professor of media studies.

An afternoon panel discussion of “Genomic Data: The Tale of the Elephant” will be moderated by Ruth Gaare Bernheim, chair of the Department of Public Health Sciences in the School of Medicine, associate director of the Institute for Practical Ethics and Public Life and co-director of the Center for Big Data Ethics, Law, and Policy.

Full conference schedule and details are available here.

Media Contact

H. Brevy Cannon

Media Relations Associate Office of University Communications