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Spring semester in London program takes an interdisciplinary look at Data, Ethics, and Culture

by Ben Hosking

Gabriela Compagni (BA, Philosophy ’21) had many options for studying abroad, but when she saw the opportunity to study data, ethics, and culture in London, she didn’t give it a second thought: “I knew I had to go, and I’m so glad I happened upon it.”

Compagni and seven other Northeastern students recently returned home from a first-of-its-kind semester in London program at Northeastern’s partner institution, the New College of the Humanities (NCH). The program – Data, Ethics, and Culture (DEC) – represents a major step forward for the university’s emphasis on humanics: the integration of technological, data, and human literacies. It also builds on the ties among Northeastern’s College of Social Sciences and Humanities (CSSH), Northeastern’s Khoury College of Computer Sciences, and NCH.

Laura Green, Associate Dean of Teaching, Learning, and Experiential Education in CSSH, notes that the program is a true team effort, combining CSSH’s strong applied ethics and philosophy program, Khoury College’s data science expertise, and the strong humanities faculty at NCH: “We looked at London as a diverse 21st century city and designed an interdisciplinary curriculum to bring these topics together.”

As head of the Philosophy faculty and Dean for Academic Affairs and Innovation at NCH, Dr. Naomi Goulder worked with colleagues and students across Northeastern to bring the DEC program to life. She also collaborated with Northeastern Philosophy Department Chair Ronald Sandler to lead Technology and Human Values, a philosophy course that explores the ethical, social, and political dimensions of technology. From genetic modification to post-humanism and machine learning to ‘Brexit’, DEC students looked critically at relationships between emerging technologies and cultural values.

Discovering Data

Students in the DEC program not only considered the ethical implications of new technologies but also developed a hands-on understanding of the technologies of data collection and data processing, in a course on Programming with Data taught in hybrid format from Boston by Nate Derbinsky of Khoury College. “Let’s imagine you’re not going to be computer scientist,” he notes. “This is the most useful course for you to understand data visualization, computation, and communication.” He sees the DEC program as beneficial to students with pre-existing computer science experience as well: “Students with computer science experience get to think more in the humanities.”

Ieke De Vries, a Criminology and Criminal Justice PhD candidate, spent the semester on the ground in London with DEC students to teach the Programming with Data practicum, helping students learn how to make sense of social science and humanities datasets. She leveraged her experience in data research on crime to teach students the importance of applying ethics to data science, something students discussed weekly in class. In these discussions, she says, students learn that “When there are uncertainties, there may be multiple approaches to the problem.”

For De Vries, the most inspiring part of teaching the course was the transformation she saw in her students’ skillsets: “Students initially thought of programming as a massive mountain, especially those without programming experience, but that attitude changed by the end of the course. They now have some of the tools to climb that mountain. And they were proud of their projects.” Students’ final projects for the semester ranged from political micro-targeting, predictive policing, and Bitcoin, to agricultural technologies such as vertical farming, cloning and procreative selection, to the construction of technological language and culture in medicine.

Humanics in London

Students took advantage of the rich historical context of London with visits to relevant sites such as Bletchley Park, home of the British code-breaking efforts during World War II, and the Alan Turing Institute, an organization dedicated to research in data science and artificial intelligence. Compagni observes of the Bletchley Park visit, “To be in the place where the code-breaking happened and to experience it all was amazing.”

As Dr. Goulder points out, the interdisciplinary study of data and ethics is increasingly important across the board: “We’re all conscious of demands for government and industry to regulate the collection and dissemination of our data, but there is increasing discussion now also about ways in which we as citizens – individual producers and consumers of data – can become more responsible and aware.”

Compagni echoes this sentiment: “As the use of data and machine learning technologies increases rapidly, cultures around the world are choosing to adapt in different ways, and it is imperative that we make intelligent and informed decisions about who is in charge of technologies with such large impacts.”

If students like Compagni have a say, the future of the Data, Ethics and Culture in London program is bright: “I absolutely loved the program and am excited about the potential opportunities that will undoubtedly arise from a Northeastern and New College of the Humanities partnership.” And indeed, Northeastern and NCH are looking forward to running the program again in Spring Semester 2020.

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