David Bray - What Are Five Concrete Steps Civil Societies Can Do Collectively To Govern Better Using Tech And Data?

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Oct 20, 2020
by David Bray
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David Bray - What Are Five Concrete Steps Civil Societies Can Do Collectively To Govern Better Using Tech And Data?

In the latest installment of the Salzburg Questions for Law and Technology, director of the Atlantic Council GeoTech Center, David Bray, suggests five new pilot schemes to help move societies forward David Bray at Salzburg Global Seminar

This article is part of the series, the Salzburg Questions for Law and Technology by the Salzburg Global Law and Technology Forum

Artificial intelligence (AI), combined with the internet of everything and advances in the distribution of storage, processing, and services – including interoperability across software as a service and platforms as a service cloud solutions and improved peer-to-peer, distributed services – collectively hold the possibility of truly enabling societies to be more community-centered in how they operate. Yet for all these things to happen, societies first need to launch projects to demonstrate learning by incorporating advances in new technologies and data capabilities, so they do not become a surveillance state or encourage surveillance capitalism.

Societies must find new ways of involving the public in efforts that employ new technologies and data to do the business of governing, what previously was referred to as governments and may now no longer be done solely by a government – alongside private sector companies and non-profits. Such new efforts include involving new technologies and data capabilities to govern in a distributed and shared way that is open, visible, and participatory for all who want to be involved. Such new efforts would also demonstrate approaches to ensure individuals have choices, human dignity, and that any data is used for civic activities only with their explicit permission.

As we look ahead to 2021, I would like to suggest five concrete pilots we can do to help move the societies forward by piloting new, participatory approaches to data and AI:

  1. Pilot participatory data trusts with the public, to include transparent activities that help make the needed data available for recovery initiatives to assist with the public health, community, and economic efforts associated with COVID-19 recovery. The frameworks—data trusts and contracts—will also specify standards for the ethical use of the data and how to formulate data governance. The operationalization of the data access will have a normal mode during which COVID-19 recovery improves and a mode when exigent circumstances require special cooperation and data access among public and private institutions in the region.
  2. Provide everyone their own personal, open-source AI application that could answer most of their questions about public services and government functions. This application could include educational resources for people to train for new jobs. Such an application would expressly not compete with the private sector. By being open-source, it would also have an open application programming interface (API) that hooks to other commercial applications that act as an interface to the queries. The public could use the AI directly or access it via their favorite commercial AI app. In either case, by making the application open, folks could ensure the app was asking questions and not reporting any data back to the government other than questions with unsatisfactory answers for additional data or refinement.
  3. Prototype a combination of participatory data trusts with the public and collaborative AI efforts to develop community, national, and global scale solutions to address local food shortages and work towards a world in which everyone has food available and not go hungry. The global food system has demonstrated its fragility with the pandemic, and we must work to make it more shock resistant. This includes developing solutions that combine participatory data approaches with the public and transparent AI efforts to develop indicators, warnings, and plans that spot global food system vulnerabilities and work to provide recommendations to make the system more resilient and sustainable. These indicators, warnings, and plans should include food for humans, food for animals, and nutrients and other products associated with agricultural production globally. National governments (defense, economic, commerce, agricultural, and diplomatic departments), agricultural industries, and humanitarian organizations all have primary roles in ensuring that global food system vulnerabilities do not weaken societal welfare, prosperity, and peace worldwide.
  4. Encourage national or international challenges to explore how AI can help reduce health care costs. This could include apps that allow you to take a photo of a rash and indicate whether it was serious or not, photos of your eye to monitor blood sugar levels, and potential alerts regarding high blood pressure. These would be apps for the individual that would either help them save time or the cost of a doctor’s visit. Of course, the challenges would be ascertaining the medicine validity of such apps, and thus we would need a rigorous review process.
  5. Enable the public to elect an AI to a government function at a local or state-level, say trash collection or public works. For several years, I have wondered when we might be able to elect an AI, and it still may be in the distant future. However, even striving to achieve this will have beneficial results. We need better ways of expressing the preferences and biases of an AI. We also need better ways of sharing why it reached certain decisions and expressing how this sense-making was done in a form that the public can appreciate. In attempting to elect different AIs to do trash collection or public works, we humans will benefit by better understanding what the machines (and data informing it) are either doing or proposing.

Looking toward the future, the only way for societies to navigate through the turbulence of 2020 and beyond is by mobilizing both private sector and public sector leaders to pilot and prototype more participatory approaches to data and AI.

We must create opportunities for all parts of societies – including the public, government, and private sector. To work together consists of a willingness to learn by doing, adapting, and leading, which is essential to working towards greater public participation in data and AI efforts for the future. We need to encourage leaders from all sectors and all nations to advance such efforts to benefit people, prosperity, and peace.


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David Bray is the director of the Atlantic Council GeoTech Center. He previously served as executive director for the People-Centered Internet co-founded by Vint Cerf, focused on providing support and expertise for community-focused projects that measurably improve people's lives using the internet. He also served as IT chief for the Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, leading the program's technology response to during 9/11, anthrax in 2001, Severe Acute Respiratory System in 2003, and other international public health emergencies. He also provides strategy to both boards and start-ups espousing human-centric principles to technology-enabled decision making in complex environments. Business Insider named him one of the top "24 Americans Who Are Changing the World" under 40 and he was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum for 2016-2021. He was also named a Senior Fellow with the Institute for Human-Machine Cognition in 2018. He holds a bachelor's degree in computer science and biology and a master's degree in health informatics from Emory University, a Ph.D. from Emory University's Goizueta Business School, and two post-doctoral associateships at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. He is a Salzburg Global Fellow.

The Salzburg Questions for Law and Technology is an online discussion series introduced and led by Fellows of the Salzburg Global Law and Technology Forum. The articles and comments represent opinions of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily represent the views of their corporations or institutions, nor of Salzburg Global Seminar. Readers are welcome to address any questions about this series to Forum Director, Charles E. Ehrlich: cehrlich@salzburgglobal.org