People

She exposed tech’s impact on people of color. Now, she’s on Biden’s team.

As the country's first deputy director for science and society, Alondra Nelson will scrutinize tech's impact on society.

She exposed tech’s impact on people of color. Now, she’s on Biden’s team.

Alondra Nelson will focus on the sociological impact of emerging technologies and scientific projects.

Photo: Angela Weiss/Getty Images

Alondra Nelson knows what it's like to be let down by Facebook.

The renowned social scientist was just named as President Biden's first deputy director for science and society, a position that will focus on the sociological effects of emerging technologies and scientific projects.

But three years ago, she was picked by a group of foundations to help lead Social Science One, an ambitious research project that aimed to give academics access to troves of Facebook data in order to examine the platform's impact on democracy. The project came at a sensitive time, on the heels of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and it was a big deal: If the group pulled it off, they could open up vital lines of communication between social science and Big Tech. Nelson was the president of the Social Science Research Council, a nonprofit that was tasked with giving out Social Science One grants to researchers.

But by 2019, the effort was floundering. Nelson had promised money to researchers to explore data that Facebook wasn't willing to give because of privacy concerns. The groups involved — including Social Science One, a pool of wealthy funders and the Council — were all at loggerheads over how to move forward.

"The privacy issues turned out to be way harder than anybody understood when we started, so we weren't able to get the data to the researchers," Larry Kramer, president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, told Protocol. "[Nelson] was pushing for clarity — like, 'We're on the line here.'" Nelson said the groups should shut down the project quickly if Facebook wasn't going to give up the data soon.

Ultimately, the Council chose to cut ties with the project. A version of the dataset was released early last year after two years of struggle.

Even though the Council opted out of the Social Science One project, danah boyd, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research and founder of Data & Society, said Nelson's work prompted the Council to start focusing on technology as an area of study. "It was a win even when Facebook never unlocked the data," boyd, who was on the Council's board at the time, said.

It started a broad conversation within academia about the most effective ways to partner with large corporations. Before this project, the Council had never attempted to use corporate data, focusing mainly on public datasets like the Census, boyd said: "It creates openings for new possibilities down the line when there is more of this kind of data."

And now, Nelson is bringing that expertise to the White House.

Over the course of his campaign, President Biden promised to bring a civil rights lens to all of his administration's policies, including tech policy. Nelson, whose research has focused on the intersection of race and technology, is in many ways the embodiment of that promise.

Nelson did not respond to requests for comment and the Office of Science and Technology Policy declined to comment, but Nelson's inclusion was met with widespread support from the community of AI ethicists, tech critics and civil rights advocates who say it's past time for the government to address the civil rights and social justice issues that technological innovations are raising.

"When we provide inputs to the algorithm, when we program the device, when we design, test and research, we are making human choices — choices that bring our social world to bear in a new and powerful way," Nelson said during her acceptance speech this month. "That's why in my career, I've always sought to understand the perspective of people and communities who are not usually in the room when the inputs are made, but who live with the outputs."

Under former President Obama, the White House OSTP was filled with techno-optimists and scientists who hoped to infuse all levels of government with technological innovation and expertise. But Nelson will likely serve as a more critical voice in the room to discuss how emerging technologies interact with race, class and gender. As a researcher, she focused on how African Americans "have been the most damaged by science and technology," but have also "been the most innovative with it, despite these countervailing forces," as she put it in an interview last year. Her book "The Social Life of DNA" delves into the fraught relationship between genetic testing and Black communities, and the anthology she helped compile, titled "Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life," explores the ways in which people of color use technology day-to-day.

Last year, she helped launch Just Tech, a network of scholars focused on creating an equitable tech industry. And her latest research focused on how under Obama, the White House OSTP — her new employer — incorporated ethics into its work.

"It's certainly not the shallow 'open data will solve all policy programs' refrain that we've seen from some folks in some previous administrations," said Meredith Whittaker, faculty director of the AI Now Institute and a leader in the tech labor organizing movement.

Whittaker said Nelson's research on the Black Panther party's grassroots medical activism helped inspire her own work because of the way it illuminated the power of political organizing.

"I'm really optimistic to have somebody at the helm of OSTP who thinks that broadly and understands the capacity for organized communities and the people who are living the effects of these technologies," Whittaker said.

Nelson's new role is particularly pivotal as the new administration grapples with the tradeoffs between surveillance and privacy, particularly in the context of COVID-19, which has disproportionately harmed Black and minority communities. The OSTP, which has an amorphous role that is typically shaped by the personalities within it, will likely advise the president on issues including contact tracing and machine-enabled vaccine deployment, as well as topics like algorithmic bias and data privacy.

"She'll critically engage that idea of: Who can be harmed by this technology?" said Simone Browne, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who says her work on anti-Blackness and surveillance was influenced by Nelson's research.

"Her appointment certainly appears to be an indication that some of the topics of her research — which get into race and class and equity, and the shape of our society — will become more the focus of OSTP's work," said Jen Pahlka, who previously served as Obama's deputy chief technology officer.

While activists like Whittaker are excited about Nelson's appointment, that excitement is tempered by a deep skepticism as the Biden administration taps Silicon Valley insiders to shape policy within the administration. His attorney general is reportedly mulling tapping a former Facebook lawyer to run the DOJ's antitrust division.

Whittaker said she's concerned that Biden is bringing in critical leaders like Nelson alongside tech industry officials who have shaped the unequal industry she has scrutinized.

The OSTP is still setting up shop. There are many positions within the office that Biden has not yet filled, including chief technology officer, and the office is still in the process of assembling its portfolio. Ultimately, Nelson will only be one voice among many shaping the trajectory of science and technology policy. But her appointment is an early signal that tech policy will look fundamentally different under President Biden.

"If Alondra does at OSTP what she does everywhere else, she'll open so many doors for people who would have never had access to any of this before," boyd said. "And that's important if we're actually trying to [create] a more inclusive government."

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