A New Think Tank on Data and Society Is Off to a Great Start, Thanks to Heavy-Weight Backers

The Data & Society Research Institute is a new, “think/do” tank based in New York that is dedicated to tackling "the social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from data-centric technological development." Which, these days, is a pretty big agenda—not to mention one that's red hot among funders. As we noted recently, "data ruled science philanthropy in 2014," with a slew of big and intriguing grants. 

Thus, it's not surprising that the MacArthur Foundation recently handed over $1.2 million in two grants to Data & Society, which is based in New York City. Or that a bunch of other notable funders are also on board, including Gates, Omidyar, and Ford. 

The institute was founded by Danah Boyd, a scholar and Microsoft researcher whose work in recent years has focused on young people and social media. Boyd is one of those rare Ph.D.s who can write in plain English, and she's authored two books that have received significant attention, most recently It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (2014). She's also long been involved in nonprofits and describes herself on her website as "both an activist and a scholar."

In other words, she's the perfect person to start a "think/do" tank. 

Back to Boyd's Ph.D. for a moment: Her dissertation research, conducted at the School of Information (iSchool) at UC Berkeley, was funded as part of the MacArthur Foundation's Initiative on New Media and Learning. So that offers some insight into the foundation's role in her new venture. 

The first MacArthur grant to Data & Society was awarded earlier this year. The organization is using the two-year $400,000 grant to support its Intelligence and Autonomy initiative, which explores the legal, economic, and cultural implications of so-called "intelligent systems." Basically, we’re talking about software systems that are designed to make decisions and judgment calls instead of people, often via machine-to-machine communications.

Intelligent systems operate in an autonomous and secure digital environment and are used in many sectors to varying degrees. The problem that Data & Society is addressing is the lack of a cohesive policy framework for protecting the public interest in this field. 

With the help of MacArthur’s $400,000 grant, Data & Society will develop case studies, build a pattern library and create intelligence and autonomy forums to enable more effective policy making in this intelligence and autonomy arena.

The larger of MacArthur’s two grants awarded to Data & Society is an $875,000 gift to its Enabling Connected Learning program. The overarching principles of this program, according to Data & Society, is “to better understand the relationship between U.S. governmental policy, technology development, and innovative learning and education initiatives.”

The Data & Security grants were awarded out of MacArthur’s Discovery Grants program, which awards grants to projects that address important social issues that are emergent and unproven. MacArthur hands out very few Discovery grants, typically around five each year.

Data & Society is off to a great start, with some heavyweight backers. Now comes the hard part: Delivering solid work and showing impact.