Arts & Sciences

A conscience amid the data revolution

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New center explores the ethical, social and political dimensions of an increasingly data-driven society.

Concerns about how companies and institutions capture, analyze and use people’s personal data are countless, and new ones arise every day. It’s part of what Dr. Michael Zimmer, associate professor of computer science, calls “the Faustian bargain of technology,” whereby every advantage provided has a corresponding disadvantage. Data tracking meant to monitor COVID-19 outbreaks, for example, can quickly become intrusive surveillance that violates personal privacy. Facial recognition technology helps identify criminals but doesn’t work well on darker skin tones, sometimes leading to wrongful accusations. Statistics gathered by law enforcement for sentencing recommendations can be incorrectly interpreted, resulting in biased judgments.

In early 2022, Marquette established the Center for Data, Ethics, and Society within the Klingler College of Arts and Sciences to explore the challenges and consequences of using the vast supply of personal information that is being collected on all of us via the internet. Under Zimmer’s direction, the center’s programs are designed to look at some of the thorniest issues facing society today and to do so through a Jesuit lens that prioritizes social justice and serving others.

“Marquette is uniquely suited to tackle these issues,” explains Zimmer. “We endeavor to educate students to do good in the world, and teaching them to focus on how ethics and data are going to connect with their jobs and their lives fits with Marquette’s vision.”

The center is committed to creating public forums where students, scholars, policymakers and industry leaders can gather to “have the hard conversations,” says Zimmer. For this challenge, the Klingler College has a head start with its annual Ethics of Big Data Symposium, now in its seventh year. But Zimmer hopes to use his extensive network to also host guest lecturers for frequent talks throughout the year.

Fitting the breadth of the Klingler College, Zimmer will bring an interdisciplinary approach to these conversations by involving other centers on campus, such as the Center for Peacemaking and the Center for the Advancement of the Humanities, to investigate how issues of data and privacy connect with their individual missions. That approach fuels one of the center’s other goals, which is to carry out research on these issues by facilitating engagement between disparate campus groups and programs.

The center will also offer courses to students at all levels and across disciplines that focus on the tricky ethical issues of the day, such as Elon Musk’s attempted purchase of Twitter and Facebook’s inroads into the metaverse. All this preparation is vital for today’s graduates, says Zimmer.

“Our goal is that when Marquette students go out into the broader world, they’ll be primed to think about some of the social and ethical consequences surrounding the issues of technology and personal data collection.”