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How Can We Make Data Work for Individuals and Communities?

We live in an increasingly data-driven society. Many aspects of life are now quantified, providing us with a tremendous opportunity to understand the world around us in unprecedented ways. At the same time, this raises new concerns about the implications for privacy, civil liberties, and open society values.

Today, we can draw from knowledge that was heretofore unavailable, and make decisions, large and small, using algorithms. It is an era of enormous, but also ambiguous, potential.

The opportunities are particularly exciting for those who care about open societies. Data at scale is reshaping the way we monitor and analyze human rights violations, broadening citizen access to government information, and helping to drive decisions about all manner of public policy, from transport system design to the deployment of humanitarian aid.

At the same time, however, we know that the choices about what data is collected and about whom—and the way systems that collect, analyze, and extract meaning from that data are designed—can have harmful consequences, such as invasive tracking by online data brokers and discriminatory pricing structures. Researchers have identified a range of concerns related to the use of data and algorithmic decision making in criminal justiceemployment decisions, and education, to name only a few areas in which an increasing reliance on data could bring positive results—or intensify existing biases.

The Knight News Challenge on Data, put forth by the Knight Foundation in collaboration with the Open Society Foundations and the Data and Society Research Institute, is an opening to explore and experiment with the ways in which we might balance the threats and opportunities at the nexus of data and society.

How can we leverage the benefits of a data-rich society while minimizing the threats to individual privacy and civil liberties? Can we ensure that data-driven systems don’t reinforce inequality, or create new modes of discrimination in social support systems, employment opportunities, and access to housing or education? How might we build safeguards into existing systems, and reimagine new systems that foster a fair and just society? How can we use data to promote inclusion and equality, and to tell stories that might not otherwise be part of the mainstream narrative?

In other words, the News Challenge asks: “How might we make data work for individuals and communities?”

We look forward to seeing not only the range of inventive projects to come but, we hope, the range of organizations, communities, and individuals from around the world that are inspired to participate in the challenge. Ideas for how we can make data work for society shouldn’t come only from data scientists, technologists, and researchers—they should come from us all.

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