By Javier Rosario
In a world where big tech companies stand strong, collecting personal data from the public and using it with little to no oversight, what can be done to limit their power? For Julia Angwin, founder of The Markup and Pulitzer Prize winner, the solution might lie in a more stalwart and data-driven approach to journalism.
Angwin shared this vision with the Northeastern community in her talk on November 19, the latest in the NULab’s “Information, Algorithms, and Justice” speaker series. Moderated by NULab Co-Director David Lazer, the event shared Angwin’s work in The Markup, a nonprofit newsroom that focuses on investigating how powerful institutions take advantage of technology. As Angwin puts it, her mission is not just to investigate the actions of these institutions, but to offer the data that legislators and the public need to hold them accountable.
“Some of the worst things in our world are already pretty well-known,” Angwin said. “I want to hold people accountable for the bad things that are already known as well as revealing new bad things.”
Doing this takes an unorthodox methodology to reporting, one that Angwin described in her talk as scientific. For their work, The Markup creates hypotheses, collects data, and even requests peer review from statisticians and other experts. According to Angwin, most newsrooms don’t share pre-published work with outside sources, but The Markup benefits from this collaboration. As she said, “We don’t just want to rely on our expertise in the newsroom.”
This process results in a newsroom with a broad understanding of how data is collected and used, one where investigative and data journalists work closely together. This has allowed The Markup to contribute to real legislative action, with their articles often being cited by policymakers when confronting tech companies and government institutions. When Facebook failed to keep its promise to stop recommending political groups to users, Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts cited evidence published by The Markup on the subject to demand that the company follow through. An investigation on discriminatory mortgage lending practices by The Markup was also cited by several federal agencies to acknowledge the need for confronting what the data showed to be a nationwide problem.
This access to and use of data is crucial to Angwin. “We are in a world where you really can’t make progress on policy issues without presenting data,” she said. “We see our role as tech experts as being able to unravel those biases and expose them to the public.”
To close out the event, Angwin was joined in conversation by Northeastern faculty and audience members in a Q&A. Interlocutors included Professors Christo Wilson (Khoury College of Computer Sciences), Woodrow Hartzog (School of Law and Khoury College of Computer Sciences), and Dean Elizabeth Hudson (College of Arts, Media, and Design). Here, Angwin broadened the discussion, speaking on the problems that cause the abuse of data by tech institutions.
“The real problem here is not researcher access, it’s that there’s no independent oversight by the government,” she said.
The event ended with thoughts from Angwin on what journalistic and even educational institutions like Northeastern need to change about their treatment of data analysis.
“It’s okay for a coder to do the coding and a journalist to do the investigation,” she said. “Building spaces where people can work adjacently to each other but build empathy for each other’s work is a great thing. I would like The Markup to be a model for other newsrooms.”
The NULab’s “Information, Algorithms, and Justice” speaker series will continue with its final event for fall 2021: a talk by Professor Martha Minow of Harvard Law School on December 3, from 10–11am (Eastern). The Northeastern community is invited for Minow’s talk, “Saving the News: Addressing Digital Disruption and the Future of Journalism,” and group discussion with Northeastern faculty interlocutors and audience members. This event is free and open to the public, but registration is required—please RSVP here.