Over recent months, the pressure on providers of app tracking technology has been increasing. In February 2022, the Belgian data protection authority found that the IAB’s Transparency & Consent Framework is in violation of EU/UK data protection law. Among other aspects, the authority argued that the IAB is in fact a data controller and not just those organisations that use the IAB framework. This ruling by the authority represents one of the first applications of the EJC’s rulings on joint controllership within the context of web and mobile tracking. The ruling underlines that those who design the technical infrastructure behind the tracking ecosystem bear responsibility for their design decisions under EU/UK data protection law. Is this the beginning of the end of surveillance capitalism?
Research at the Gap?
Looking around in my PhD, many of my peers seem to have an obsession with one key thing: identifying the right research gap. The promise is that, by finding your gap in the existing literature, you can then conduct the thus far missing research and make important contributions with your PhD.
As a result of that thinking, many students spend a significant amount of their time studying the existing research landscape meticulously. The wish to get a grasp of the state-of-the-art is understandable. After all, there’s a certain bar to pass for academic work and it’s difficult to know that bar right at the start of your PhD.
I do strongly think that the approach of searching for research gaps and trying to fill them is a relatively safe and tested approach to succeed in a PhD. This is because many academic venues — journals and conferences — adopt a similar thinking when assessing the contribution of your research: if your own research complements and sufficiently exceeds the status quo, then your work is more likely to get published.
However, the focus on ‘research gaps’ evokes feelings in me like when I see my dentist. He, too, makes a meticulous effort to find gaps and fill them, within the cosmos of my dental hygiene. This work is utterly important. It will, however, not change the world and lead to great leaps in society. Neither is an overly focus on filling research gaps going to lead to great academic leaps. Rather, this creates iterative work instead of groundbreaking innovations.
The issue of a loss of innovation in science was recently covered in a widely discussed Nature paper. This paper seems to confirm my own observations around a mismatch of incentives between the academic publication process and the creation of groundbreaking scientific breakthroughs.
Hence my advice for young PhD students: If you want to create the most good for society, then better forget about the research gap, study widely and outside your immediate bubble, and aim for research leaps instead!
Federated analytics for public good
About contact-tracing apps in Covid-19 containment
For the blog of the Open Data Institute (ODI), I wrote a blog article that talks about what federated analytics is, how it relates to federated learning and how the approach was used in Covid-19 contact tracing. This post is related to ongoing research at the ODI on the use of federated learning for public, educational and charitable aims.
Ethics is all we need?
The computer science discipline undoubtedly has enormous impacts on our day-to-day lives. Increasingly, key parts of our society are run by algorithms. This has created a range of notable scandals, for example, when machine learning systems fail to account for the diversity of the human population. This is why many individuals, inside and outside of computer science, argue for compulsory ethics modules in the computer science curriculum. This would be similar to compulsory ethics education that is commonly part of business and finance degrees. I thus argue this thinking is too simple, and fails to identify the actual root problems.
The Market Power of App Stores
The regulation and power of app stores is gaining increasing interests from regulators. This interested has been particularly spurred by Apple’s recent introduction of the App Tracking Transparency framework, which gives end-users more control over unwanted advertising-relating data collection, but also increases the price of targeted online ads on iOS (thereby potentially raising the prices of advertised products).
Since I have been doing much research into app ecosystems in my PhD at Oxford, I teamed up with my colleagues Reuben Binns and Nigel Shadbolt to submit evidence to the UK Competition and Markets authority in February 2022. This evidence has now been made public. The regulator has also published its final report on competition within the app ecosystem.
Our key recommendations were: