Last Monday we launched the new Digital Footprint MOOC, a free three week online course (running on Coursera) led by myself and Louise Connelly (Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies). The course builds upon our work on the Managing Your Digital Footprints research project, campaign and also draws on some of the work I’ve been doing in piloting a Digital Footprint training and consultancy service at EDINA.
It has been a really interesting and demanding process working with the University of Edinburgh MOOCs team to create this course, particularly focusing in on the most essential parts of our Digital Footprints work. Our intention for this MOOC is to provide an introduction to the issues and equip participants with appropriate skills and understanding to manage their own digital tracks and traces. Most of all we wanted to provide a space for reflection and for participants to think deeply about what their digital footprint means to them and how they want to manage it in the future. We don’t have a prescriptive stance – Louise and I manage our own digital footprints quite differently but both of us see huge value in public online presence – but we do think that understanding and considering your online presence and the meaning of the traces you leave behind online is an essential modern life skill and want to contribute something to that wider understanding and debate.
Since MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – are courses which people tend to take in their own time for pleasure and interest but also as part of their CPD and personal development so that fit of format and digital footprint skills and reflection seemed like a good fit, along with some of the theory and emerging trends from our research work. We also think the course has potential to be used in supporting digital literacy programmes and activities, and those looking for skills for transitioning into and out of education, and in developing their careers. On that note we were delighted to see the All Aboard: Digital Skills in Higher Education‘s 2017 event programme running last week – their website, created to support digital skills in Ireland, is a great complementary resource to our course which we made a (small) contribution to during their development phase.
— KayBee (@karenlouiseb) April 4, 2017
Over the last week it has been wonderful to see our participants engaging with the Digital Footprint course, sharing their reflections on the #DFMOOC hashtag, and really starting to think about what their digital footprint means for them. From the discussion so far the concept of the “Uncontainable Self” (Barbour & Marshall 2012) seems to have struck a particular chord for many of our participants, which is perhaps not surprising given the degree to which our digital tracks and traces can propagate through others posts, tags, listings, etc. whether or not we are sharing content ourselves.
— Kay Oddone (@KayOddone) April 6, 2017
When we were building the MOOC we were keen to reflect the fact that our own work sits in a context of, and benefits from, the work of many researchers and social media experts both in our own local context and the wider field. We were delighted to be able to include guest contributors including Karen Gregory (University of Edinburgh), Rachel Buchanan (University of Newcastle, Australia), Lilian Edwards (Strathclyde University), Ben Marder (University of Edinburgh), and David Brake (author of Sharing Our Lives Online).
been spreading my data on the www pretty much all my life. Yet, never thought about what happened to it when I die. eyeopener from #DFMOOC
— Anna Sophia (@snoegga) April 7, 2017
The usefulness of making these connections across disciplines and across the wider debate on digital identity seems particularly pertinent given recent developments that emphasise how fast things are changing around us, and how our own agency in managing our digital footprints and digital identities is being challenged by policy, commercial and social factors. Those notable recent developments include…
On 28th March the US Government voted to remove restrictions on the sale of data by ISPs (Internet Service Providers), potentially allowing them to sell an incredibly rich picture of browsing, search, behavioural and intimate details without further consultation (you can read the full measure here). This came as the UK Government mooted the banning of encryption technologies – essential for private messaging, financial transactions, access management and authentication – claiming that terror threats justified such a wide ranging loss of privacy. Whilst that does not seem likely to come to fruition given the economic and practical implications of such a measure, we do already have the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 in place which requires web and communications companies to retain full records of activity for 12 months and allows police and security forces significant powers to access and collect personal communications data and records in bulk.
On 30th March, a group of influential privacy researchers, including danah boyd and Kate Crawford, published Ten simple rules for responsible big data research in PLoSOne. The article/manifesto is an accessible and well argued guide to the core issues in responsible big data research. In many ways it summarises the core issues highlight in the excellent (but much more academic and comprehensive) AoIR ethics guidance. The PLoSOne article is notably directed to academia as well as industry and government, since big data research is at least as much a part of commercial activity (particularly social media and data driven start ups, see e.g. Uber’s recent attention for profiling and manipulating drivers) as traditional academic research contexts. Whilst academic research does usually build ethical approval processes (albeit conducted with varying degrees of digital savvy) and peer review into research processes, industry is not typically structured in that way and often not held to the same standards particularly around privacy and boundary crossing (see, e.g. Michael Zimmers work on both academic and commercial use of Facebook data).
The Ten simple rules… are also particularly timely given the current discussion of Cambridge Analytica and it’s role in the 2016 US Election, and the UK’s EU Referendum. An article published in Das Magazin in December 2016, and a subsequent English language version published on Vice’s Motherboard have been widely circulated on social media over recent weeks. These articles suggest that the company’s large scale psychometrics analysis of social media data essentially handed victory to Trump and the Leave/Brexit campaigns, which naturally raises personal data and privacy concerns as well as influence, regulation and governance issues. There remains some skepticism about just how influential this work was… I tend to agree with Aleks Krotoski (social psychologist and host of BBC’s The Digital Human) who – speaking with Pat Kane at an Edinburgh Science Festival event last night on digital identity and authenticity – commented that she thought the Cambridge Analytica work was probably a mix of significant hyperbole but also some genuine impact.
These developments focus attention on access, use and reuse of personal data and personal tracks and traces, and that is something we we hope our MOOC participants will have opportunity to pause and reflect on as they think about what they leave behind online when they share, tag, delete, and particularly when they consider terms and conditions, privacy settings and how they curate what is available and to whom.
So, the Digital Footprint course is launched and open to anyone in the world to join for free (although Coursera will also prompt you with the – very optional – possibility of paying a small fee for a certificate), and we are just starting to get a sense of how our videos and content are being received. We’ll be sharing more highlights from the course, retweeting interesting comments, etc. throughout this run (which began on Monday 3rd April), but also future runs since this is an “on demand” MOOC which will run regularly every four weeks. If you do decide to take a look then I would love to hear your comments and feedback – join the conversation on #DFMOOC, or leave a comment here or email me.
And if you’d like to find out more about our digital footprint consultancy, or would be interested in working with the digital footprints research team on future work, do also get in touch. Although I’ve been working in this space for a while this whole area of privacy, identity and our social spaces seems to continue to grow in interest, relevance, and importance in our day to day (digital) lives.