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UMD-Led Project Awarded $3M NSF Grant to Study Big Data Ethics

Multi-disciplinary team, representing six research institutions, will study issues surrounding user consent, risk assessment and regulations.


Mia Hinckle , 301-405-1260


The University of Maryland was recently awarded a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to explore the ethics of how big data are captured and used. Led by UMD’s College of Information Studies, the four-year research project, titled PERVADE (Pervasive Data Ethics for Computational Research), will study issues surrounding user consent, risk assessment and regulations. The project aims to provide guidance to policymakers, regulators and tech developers to help drive the development of a new, more ethical, norm in big data collection and usage.

“Whether mobile phone apps, website search engines, wearable technology or social platforms, consumer information has become highly trackable and available,” said Dr. Katie Shilton, associate professor at UMD and principal investigator on the grant. “This has resulted in an ethically questionable free-for-all in research and marketing.”

The PERVADE team will focus on consumers, big data researchers, commercial providers and regulators--domestically and internationally--to explore how these diverse stakeholders understand their ethical obligations and choices, and how their decisions impact data system design and use. More specifically, the team’s research will examine how people experience the reuse of their personal data; what social factors influence people’s willingness to share their data; how and when consent should be given; and how consumers’ concerns can be shared with data system designers and big data researchers.

“By empowering researchers with information about the norms and risks of big data research, we can make sure that users of any digital platform are only involved in research in ways they don’t find surprising or unfair,” said Dr. Shilton.

The PERVADE team is a multi-disciplinary team of researchers with expertise in computational science, research ethics, data practices, law and policy, health information, social computing, qualitative and quantitative research methods and data privacy. The team consists of Dr. Katie Shilton, College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland College Park, Dr. Jessica Vitak, College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland College Park, Dr. Matthew Bietz, Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, Dr. Casey Fiesler, Department of Information Science, College of Media, Communication and Information at University of Colorado Boulder, Dr. Jacob Metcalf, Data & Society Research Institute, Dr. Arvind Narayanan, Department of Computer Science at Princeton University, and Dr. Michael Zimmer, School of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The team intends to provide best practices for each stakeholder group along with decision-support tools, risk measurement methods, public educational materials and an open dataset of findings by the end of the project in 2021.


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