Crowdsourcing should be secure

- Follow 3 simple principles and you've come a long way in handling privacy issues in crowdsourcing, says Ove Skåra from the Norwegian Data Protection Authority.

We've interviewed Ove Skåra the Director of Communications at the Norwegian Data Protection Authority about ICT, crowdsourcing and research.

Ove Skåra has held the position as the Director of Communications for 14 years. He has long experience working with communications in different organizations within the public sector, both local and central authorities.

1. In the last decades, new ways of research have been implemented, referred to as crowdsourcing, citizen participation, citizen science, public participation and volunteered information. Where do you see the biggest advantage of such approaches?

I see two quite obvious big advantages of using crowdsourcing in research. 

The first is that crowdsourcing can create a commitment among groups of citizens that one would otherwise not have obtained. Crowdsourcing provides an opportunity to gain attention among the public about a research area that would have been hard to achieve in other ways.

This applies not only to those who actively participate in the crowdsourcing activity, but far beyond it. Participants will often convey their active involvement in the research to their personal networks. In this way, the diffusion and dissemination become larger, both of the on-going activities and the results.

The other obvious advantage is that the research could be improved - you get ideas, views, and other input that you otherwise wouldn't have captured. The array of perspectives and ideas is widened. If you're lucky, you might also gain pioneering discoveries. There are many citizens out there with great skills who put considerable efforts into studying narrow fields. Some may sit on information, ideas or results that professional scientists do not even know exists.

Crowdsourcing provides an opportunity to gain attention among the public about a research area that would have been hard to achieve in other ways.

2. Were do you see the biggest challenge of such approaches?

From the researcher's standpoint, it may well be a risk that a lot of the input from crowdsourcing becomes a form of surplus material of little or no use, that the researcher needs to check, spend time on and "sign off". Participants engaging in research in this way will expect to get feedback on their contributions.

The research team should therefore already in the design of the project plan for how to communicate with all those involved, in a manner that satisfy the participants, but that does not require too much resources from the professional scientists themselves.

But, remember also the saying, in norwegian, "det kan skjule seg gull blant all gråsteinen” - you can find gold among all the granite. Surely it can be done to manage all the input in a good way. 

Also, I believe that challenges may arise related to copyright; who has ownership of the research results? Such aspects are probably important to pay attention to when the crowdsourcing solutions are designed and through the information provided to the participants.

Do not forget privacy issues! 

Since I represent the Norwegian Data Protection Authority I must of course also mention privacy challenges that researchers needs to be aware of. 

It is almost inevitable that some personal data will be gathered, in one way or another, through a crowdsourcing activity. Most obvious is the registered information put by those who are actively inserting their contributions through the crowdsourcing solution. In such cases, the participants will mostly be aware of that data is captured. 

In some cases, though, a participant may also register, without being deliberate, information that says something about family members and others - who has not given their consent in participating. 

To add to the complexity you may also register information that you not immediately think of as personally identifiable information, such as information about your house, artefacts, measurements being carried out etc. 

Sometimes metadata is submitted in photos. Put together with other available information such data can quickly contribute to identifying individuals and say something about specific individuals' behavioral patterns, preferences and attitudes. The information together can be considered as sensitive personal data, which require additional protection by privacy legislation.

Researchers can not leave it up to an individual contributor to foresee potential consequences. The researcher, as the "professional party" of a crowdsourcing project, must take responsibility for what individuals are encouraged to contribute. 

In the design of the crowdsourcing project or activity, risk assessments should be carried out to identify where something could go wrong, and what the consequences would be for participating individuals. Finding which risks you can accept on behalf of the crowdsourcing participants does not need to be a difficult exercise to undertake. It can be done as a creative, structured activity that is both meaningful and exciting for those participating. 

Follow these 3 simple principles:

  1. Do not plan to collect more identifiable personal information than what you strictly need. 
  2. Tell contributors what the information will be used for. Don't fall for the temptation to use the information for anything else than what contributors have actively given their consent.
  3. Explain what you do, for example in a privacy statement for the project.

If you as a researcher follow these principles you've come a long way when you're inviting to participate in crowdsourcing for research.

In the design of the crowdsourcing project or activity, risk assessments should be carried out to identify where something could go wrong, and what the consequences would be for participating individuals.

3. The vision of smart cities is nowadays a well-established path based on integrating multiple ICTs. Where do you see the greatest potential for the use and integration of multiples ICTs for urban sustainability?

I think there would be several advantages for all sectors in a city or community. 

Most apparent is probably within transport and communications. Here it's possible by use of ICT to influence the individual's choice in such a way that it has considerable consequences for the society as a whole. 

The changes each of us make can be pretty small individually and not so troublesome, but the positive impact on the society as a whole can be considerable.

4. What are the biggest challenges with digitalization and the integration of multiple ICTs for urban sustainability?

From a privacy standpoint, it's a challenge that digitalization and new solutions often are built in such a way that the solutions require information to be recorded about each of us, often in huge volumes. 

Those who collect personal information will often argue that the information collected is not personal data and that privacy and security are safeguarded. 

To anonymize data is today much more challenging than it was previously. The enormous amount of available public data, combined with access to ever cheaper and more powerful technology for analysis has contributed to increase the risk of so-called reidentification (manipulating and linking data to determine the identity of individuals).

5. What does the term 'social responsible' tell you? Do you see it compatible with crowdsourcing and/or citizen participation in research?

I think most people want to make a positive contribution to the community, but it can be difficult to know how. Good crowdsourcing solutions can lower the threshold to participate and contribute. 

And, the very best crowdsourcing solutions are also made in such a way that the user will be motivated to give their continued contributions - not only as a single event. To achieve this reward mechanisms needs to be built in. 

In a research context, it's important that feedback solutions are built in which give the participants an active, direct  and meaningful recognition of the contributions that they've submitted.

Good crowdsourcing solutions can lower the threshold to participate and contribute.


Questions or something to add? Leave a comment below.

This blog post is part of a series where we interview stakeholders about ICT, crowdsourcing, research and urban sustainability. 

You can take part in the dialogue by using the hashtag #crowds4research

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