Hackfests, UX, Personal Data, and Media Among Trends at ER&L 2018

The comprehensive program at the 13th annual Electronic Resources and Libraries (ER&L) conference featured presentations from danah boyd and Robyn Caplan of the Data & Society Research Institute.
danah boydPeople now provide corporations and institutions with data by choice, data by circumstance, and data by coercion, danah boyd, founder of the Data & Society Research Institute, principal researcher at Microsoft Research, and visiting professor at New York University, said during a special presentation, “The Messy Reality of Algorithmic Culture,” during the 13th annual Electronic Resources and Libraries (ER&L) conference at the University of Texas at Austin’s AT&T Conference Center. Viewing personal data through this spectrum “really helps us see how that data came into being and start to ask questions about the ethical uses of that data.” Data by choice, boyd explained, is the ideal in which people opt to exchange personal data for services, fully understanding the terms of their agreement. “You know exactly why you’re contributing this data, and you get something meaningful in return.” Health monitoring devices promised such an arrangement—although some companies have started pressuring or requiring employees to use these devices, she noted—“but the idea that you could actually learn something about yourself, and share that data in the hopes that you would make a trade-off that would be valuable, that, in many ways, is what Silicon Valley hopes to enable.” The opposite extreme is data by coercion, boyd said, citing as an example Orange County California's “spit and acquit” program, under which people arrested for minor crimes may be released in exchange for DNA samples. “There is coercion at multiple levels here. Coercion at the point of collection,” and coercion by default, because these people aren’t given a complete explanation of how such data may be used, she said. Data by circumstance is “the most common way [companies and institutions] get data” about people, and often they are unaware what is being collected. When corporations leverage information gathered via social media, loyalty card histories, or other means, the results can be creepy or even invasive, she noted, citing the example of Target sending a teen girl baby care coupons before her parents knew she was pregnant—an anecdote reported in a 2012 New York Times story about retail data analytics. The power dynamics are not tilted in the individual’s favor. Near the end of the talk, boyd discussed employee scheduling software, an innovation that could easily be used to make low-wage workers’ lives easier. “But that’s not who is buying these services,” boyd said. “When a major firm buys that, they want to maximize their workers while keeping them under 32 hours” per week, ensuring that fewer employees qualify for benefits. “The system is set up to make these tools of power, not tools of empowerment.” The session was a highlight of the March 4–7 conference, which included a comprehensive selection of presentations on electronic resources management.

Hacking plans

Covering an exciting trend with their presentation “Combining Forces for E-Resources: How We Organized a Hackfest for Not Necessarily Programmers,” Alexa Stoneman, Touro University; Justine Withers, University of San Francisco; Margaret Hogarth, Claremont Colleges; and Eric Chao, Statewide California Electronic Library Consortium (SCELC), discussed how they developed the annual two-day SCELC eResource Hackfest. With a budget of $5,000 for each event, they’ve learned to prioritize the subsidization of housing and food, schedule in the summer when there are no conflicts with other library meetings (and university dorms are available for housing), alternate the location between northern and southern California each year to make travel easier for prospective attendees, limit the number of registrants to about 30, emphasize in outreach efforts that extensive coding knowledge is not required, and much more. They’ve also produced an online guide, available here.


Ken Varnum, University of Michigan Library (UM), discussed a front-end discovery redesign at UM in his presentation “Customizing Discovery Interfaces to Understand Users’ Behaviors and Provide Better Service.” Over the years, UM has developed many custom user interfaces for resources provided by vendors, including a cataloging front end, an article discovery front end, a database finder, a journal finder, research guides, etc., “each of which presented our users…with different experiences, different expectations,” Varnum explained. So, two and a half years ago, the library started planning an overhaul and began by talking with its users—“the students, the faculty, the staff that are our customers but also librarians.” The redesign team reviewed user research from the past four years, partnered with Deirdre Costello and the EBSCO UX team to conduct contextual inquiries, conducted additional user testing on the existing search interface, and studied analytics data and search logs. Using that information, they created “tons” of wireframes—initially site layouts on paper and later clickable prototypes—and then conducted usability testing on the wireframes. A final black-and-white prototype was then developed “to get staff and others to look at what it did, rather than how it looked,” Varnum said, and feedback was drawn from 30 hands-on presentations spanning eight weeks across UM and affiliated campuses before completing the final design. A campuswide public beta was released in November, and the new discovery system is scheduled to launch in May, following commencement.

Media Platform

Robyn Caplan, researcher at Data & Society, examined the rise of “fake news” and the role that algorithm-driven platforms such as Facebook and Google play in spreading of both good and bad information in her keynote “Content Standards and Their Consequences: How Platform Power Is Reshaping Global Communications Policy.” In the timely presentation, Caplan noted that the lines between platforms and media companies have been blurring. News organizations are shifting their models or adjusting coverage in response to data they’re receiving from platforms. While Facebook executives continue to argue that it is a technology company, not a media company, the platform is the primary conduit through which many of its users discover news, from both legitimate and “fake” sources. And when the company attempts to flag or remove questionable stories, tweak its news feed algorithm, or otherwise intervene to promote or downgrade content, it’s making decisions similar to media companies. “In many ways, the Internet was intended to break down barriers between publisher and reader, between large publisher and small,” she said, adding that many early advocates viewed it as a tool that would help raise marginalized voices and represent the true public sphere. In 2018, it has turned out to be much more complicated than that. Many platform users have trouble distinguishing between what’s real and what’s fake, and “what one perceives as true depends significantly on your community and your social media community,” she said.
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