Campus & Community

Harvard project to track personal data wins Knight News Challenge award

3 min read

‘All the Places Personal Data Goes’ seeks to make data sharing transparent

All the Places Personal Data Goes,” a project based out of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, was among the 17 winners of the Knight News Challenge, receiving $440,000.

In total, $3.2 million in grants was awarded by the Knight Foundation.

“The winning projects reveal new ways to shape and deliver information through data — showing how it can be used to build stronger, more informed communities, while inviting people to explore and innovate,” John Bracken, Knight’s vice president for media innovation, said in a statement.

“With funding from the Knight Foundation, we will enlist the help of the public to document all the places personal data goes,” project lead and Harvard Professor Latanya Sweeney said in an email. “Consumers bear the risks, but have no way of knowing when they are harmed. Regulators, advocates, and journalists, who are the groups that would normally help, have no way of knowing either. With funding from the Knight Foundation, we can help the helpers.”

In describing Harvard’s winning project, the Knight News Challenge said, “People share details of their lives widely — whether they are buying an app or providing information to their doctor — often trusting companies and others with intimate facts. But where does that data end up? In many cases, once an organization acquires this information, it can legally share it with others without clear notice — whether the information be medical history, or a name and GPS location. This project aims to create a crowd-sourced resource that documents how data is being shared by companies and organizations. Through a game-like portal, members of the public will become ‘data detectives,’ earning points for locating and reporting evidence of data-sharing arrangements. The result will be a detailed database of personal data-sharing arrangements that can be visualized, and help the public spot potential risks, benefits, and opportunities.

“In order to restore past protections, we need more transparency so we can know where personal data goes. Our project seeks to make data sharing transparent,” added Sweeney, who is a professor of government and technology in residence at Harvard.

This iteration of the News Challenge focused on how data can be used to improve communities, and many of the projects — such as efforts to track policing, make Freedom of Information Act requests easier, or follow legislation — have the potential to aid journalists. The winners were announced last week at an event in New York. Eight projects will receive grants between $237,589 and $470,000. The other nine winners will be presented $35,000 through the Prototype Fund, which provides structured funding and support for early stage projects. Knight has funded 190 projects, totaling $47 million, through the News Challenge since it launched in 2007.

Note: Nieman Lab also receives funding from Knight, though not through the News Challenge. To read Joseph Lichterman’s full story in Nieman Lab, visit its website.