September 24, 2017

Rethinking Privacy at the LITA Top Tech Trends Panel | ALA Annual 2015

Librarians should not be afraid to discuss both positive and negative implications of collecting and analyzing patron data, library technology consultant Carson Block said during the Library and Information Technology Association’s (LITA) Top Tech Trends panel during the American Library Association’s Annual Conference on June 28. “We’ve limited ourselves by saying, ‘We don’t want to touch [the topic of data collection] because we might be infringing on patron confidentiality and privacy,’” he said. “I think that’s too simplistic of a view. I think, in fact, we have to embrace looking at data collection to serve our patrons…and protecting confidentiality and privacy. I think we’re the only organization[s] that really care about actually protecting that pile of data.”

Patrons have become accustomed to commercial entities anticipating their interests and needs, and they’re expecting the same type of service from institutions such as libraries, Block argued. If libraries refuse to consider ways in which patron data can be harvested and managed responsibly, there is a risk of falling behind commercial enterprises that offer superior service, but have little concern about consumer confidentiality.

Block was joined by Andrea Davis, knowledge manager for The Forest Trust (TFT); Grace Dunbar, VP of Equinox Software; Bonnie Tijerina, founder of Electronic Resources & Libraries (ER&L) and fellow at the Data and Society Institute in New York; and moderator Emily Clasper, system operations and training manager for New York’s Suffolk Cooperative Library System.

“I don’t think we’re having quite the nuanced conversation that we need to be having in terms of what patron privacy actually means,” said Tijerina. Citing author, professor, and researcher danah boyd’s June 27 keynote address at the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) President’s Program, Tijerina noted that data collection can be beneficial, circumstantial, or coercive. Many people opt in to data collection by commercial services such as FitBit, for example, because they see a personal benefit from the technology.

Block argued libraries should take a similar approach to opt-in data collection in order to provide better service.

“The first step is not being afraid of collecting [data], but actually talking about the implications and asking the question ‘How do we look at the behavior of patrons?’” Block said. “They’re expecting us to anticipate stuff based on their behavior, because of the rest of the world that they live in.… How do we do [data collection and analysis] in a responsible way? How do we do a better job of protecting data than a commercial entity?”

Smart Cities

Each panelist came prepared to discuss two technology trends that are impacting libraries and patrons. The spontaneous discussion about patron privacy was sparked, in part, by Tijerina’s first trend—widespread availability of free WiFi in many cities, and the related growth of “smart cities.”

“We’ve been talking about free, ubiquitous Internet access reaching all areas of our communities for some time,” she said. In the “utopian” vision of free municipal WiFi, it bridges the digital divide and offers fast, safe, and secure Internet access while ensuring privacy, Tijerina said. But public-private partnerships—between municipalities, tech corporations, and advertisers—are emerging as the more likely model for getting these networks built. She cited LinkNYC, a project to replace New York City payphones with WiFi hotspots that involves the New York City Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation; the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT); and CityBridge, a New York City–based consortium of technology, design, and marketing companies, including Titan and Control Group, which were recently acquired by Google.

LinkNYC will undoubtedly offer conveniences to on-the-go tablet and smartphone users, and will most likely bring broadband access to thousands of households that can’t afford a subscription service. But it will also enable the use of sensors to track users and their behavior, as well as enabling location- and time-based advertising. So where universal broadband access may offer new opportunities for libraries, it will also raise new concerns about privacy.

“I think that there are some very tactical things to think about,” Tijerina said. “What does that mean for libraries, specifically, in terms of services that can or should be provided? What does this mean for our values?”

Tijerina discussed cross-sector collaboration as her second trend, which also involved rethinking data sharing and privacy policies.

“The information world that we live in is creating opportunities in many sectors of society—health care, education, journalism, civil society, government,” she said. “And over the past decade, new applications of data have improved services, transparency, and public access in each of these areas, but it’s also led to missteps, concerns, and distrust.”

For example, social media organizations and telecommunications companies have a lot of user data that could be useful to humanitarian organizations during times of crisis.

“We’re seeing different sectors with different goals and values trying to figure out how to work together.”

Everything old is new again

The re-emergence or renewed importance of long-term trends was a recurring theme throughout the panel. Davis, for example, discussed the resurgence of podcasting, noting that while podcasts have been around since the mid-2000s, improved tools for production and access are leading the format to mainstream popularity.

“We’re starting to have all of the tools and easy access points [for listening to podcasts] on our mobile devices, on our computers, people are listening to them in their cars,” she said. “In terms of consumption, people are ready for it.”

As the format’s popularity grows, there will be a need for curation and preservation, as well as opportunities for libraries to develop partnerships with successful podcast producers, Davis noted.

“Is this not one more form of a serial?” she said. “This is amazing content that’s coming out regularly. In libraries, I’m curious who out there is starting to collect this? Are we relying on the networks, are we relying on iTunes?”

As her other trend, Davis discussed how libraries are continuing to deploy RFID technology to simplify inventory tracking and other tasks, beyond traditional self-checkout and security uses.

Maintaining infrastructure

Block described his first trend as “old, but with a new twist.” Tablets, laptops, smartphones, and wearable technologies aren’t new, but where just a few years ago, a patron might bring one or two of these items with them to their library, it is becoming much more common for individuals to arrive with multiple devices in tow.

“Count the things in your own pockets or purse or briefcase,” Block asked the audience, noting that, in aggregate, all of these WiFi enabled devices can strain WiFi capacity in many institutions.

Connectivity infrastructure “is invisible when it’s working, and very visible when it’s not,” he said. “We’ve been concentrating really, really well on our external connections, and are actually making headway there with increased bandwidth…. As I travel around the country and work with folks, though, I’m seeing that they’re not giving enough attention to scalable internal connections, in both the wired sense, and wireless.”

Investing in movable, scalable wireless access points that don’t require controllers is one way to meet increasing demands, Block said. “This is only going to keep increasing—our internal connection demands.”

For his second trend, Block discussed the growth of “innovation communities” within libraries. By Block’s definition, this term might be used to describe a library Maker space, for example. But he emphasized that “community” is the core of the concept. “The best [innovation communities] are the ones that are not about the ‘stuff.’ The stuff is secondary.”

Libraries that are interested in providing equipment and facilities for their patrons to create and explore should begin by carefully assessing the needs and interests of the community. For example, his hometown library in Colorado “there’s things going on in the business community, there’s things going on with the arts community,” Block said. “We’re asking the question, how do we create a place that revitalizes both in a way that there’s crossover…between entrepreneurs and artists?”

Staying open

Dunbar, whose company Equinox Software provides hosting, training, and development support for the open source Evergreen integrated library system (ILS), as well as the Koha ILS and other open source solutions, highlighted two ongoing trends often emphasized by proponents of open source solutions.

First, she discussed the growth of open source in general.

Open source “matches up with the core values that librarians have, of freedom of information,” Dunbar said, “It matches so nicely with the values of people who [develop] open source software, who also want that information and that code to also be free.”

Dunbar’s second trend involved the use of application programming interfaces (APIs) to connect a library’s ILS with third-party services and systems, framing the discussion partly as a critique of practices sometimes associated with commercial vendors.

Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (menis@mediasourceinc.com; @matthewenis on Twitter) is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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