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Fall 2019: A Term of [REDACTED]

The common theme to my work as the Ethics Intern this term has been anonymization, particularly of data. The two projects taking the bulk of my attention both deal with the requirements of ethical data collection; one in a practical manner, one in a theoretical. First is my work with the Public Memory of Myanmar project, on behalf of Professor Tun Myint; second is my research into the Institutional Review Board and its requirements for Carleton.

The Public Memory of Myanmar project is an ongoing effort to document daily life in Burma/Myanmar, in various towns and cities around the country. The Carleton Political Science department sponsors an annual trip, organized by Tun Myint, where participants photograph and interview locals. Burma/Myanmar is a politically turbulent area, and the Public Memory exists in order to preserve ways of life that are in jeopardy and to put narratives of life into those people whose experiences may not be depicted in the official political narratives put out by the state. However, this political turbulence also means that local people participating in this project may be in danger if they can be identified. Much of my work this term has therefore consisted of going through each item in the collection (a photograph/video, accompanied by descriptive metadata) and combing through the information associated with each object in order to find any specific names or locations that could be used to identify individuals.

This focus on the particulars of individual data also comes up in my other major project, which has been to do research with regards to the Institutional Review Board at Carleton, the standards it must meet, and the standards it must uphold. The IRB is an overseeing body at Carleton that approves project proposals for work which involves research using human subjects. These proposals must explain what data they wish to collect, how they will collect it, and what their plans are for safe storage. These concerns come up most frequently with regards to the psychology and economics departments. However, it is definitely possible for other fields to propose projects that fall under the purview of the IRB. The regulations the IRB is subject to are relevant to the library and to digital scholarship because the library is responsible for the storage of data after it is collected by student researchers (it must be kept for a minimum of three years after the study is concluded, according to federal law). Carleton is also subject to GDPR regulations where data collection overlaps with GDPR jurisdiction (data collected in regards to people currently located in the EU falls under this jurisdiction). 

Ethical data collection under the IRB involves looking not only at which pieces of information are collected, but how these pieces might work together to identify an individual even if personal IDs are not collected. For example, while collecting college ID numbers or Social Security numbers would make participants easy to identify and therefore would not be allowable under the IRB, collecting, for example, age, gender, hometown and current dorm creates the potential to identify specific individuals by combining this information. Finding, for example, a 23-year-old woman from Albany living in a specific building is a distinct possibility based on collected data which the researcher might not even mean to use.

You can see why it’s been difficult for me to come up with a visual to convey the work I’ve done this term, since so much of my work centered on stripping away identity. In the end, what I settled for was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Please enjoy Sanitized Data, by Pilot Irwin (2019).

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