March 16, 2018

AI, Personalization, and Privacy: Top Tech Trends | ALA Midwinter 2018

Library Information Technology Association logoDriven by big data and ever-increasing computing power, artificial intelligence (AI) is experiencing rapid growth, and librarians should consider the implications of AI both inside and outside the field, Bohyun Kim, associate professor, scholarly technology, University of Rhode Island, said during the Library Information Technology Association’s (LITA) Top Tech Trends Panel, held during the American Library Association’s 2018 Midwinter conference in Denver, CO.

“There has been really drastic advancement” in AI during the past five years, Kim said. “There are cars that can drive themselves really well. There are [AI]-driven programs that help radiologists diagnose tumors…. Machines now can recognize your voice…and answer you back…. In games like Go and Chess, machines have now exceeded our capacity,” she cited as examples.

Kim was joined by Ken Chad, director, Ken Chad Consulting; Kathryn Harnish, senior VP, product strategy, Innovative Interfaces; Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe, professor/coordinator for information literacy services and instruction, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and Ida Joiner, librarian, Universal Academy School, Irving, TX. Cleveland Public Library director Felton Thomas moderated the panel, whose discussion included AI, drones, personalization and privacy, the embedding of libraries in academic learning processes, and more.

The promise of AI  is evident, but what happens to information professionals and, more broadly, the economy, as AI applications continue to expand into new fields and automate tasks that have traditionally required active human engagement? Kim asked. And what are the ethical implications? Could corporations or government institutions use AI to determine a person’s eligibility for health insurance or Medicaid, or to determine what type of prison sentence a person is given following a trial? What role will humans play?

“Those are some of the things that we need to start thinking about now, because AI is still in the early stages,” Kim said. Corporate investment in the technology has been increasing dramatically, which could predict its rapid expansion.

Access and tracking

Discussing another area of growing concern, Hinchliffe noted that “user tracking is moving increasingly into the library environment…we need to be watching the degree to which user tracking is under the user’s control, or if there are other[s]…making decisions on behalf of our users.”

Publishers and vendors may have legitimate concerns about securing access to subscription content, particularly with sites such as Sci-Hub offering access to pirated versions, but libraries also have legitimate concerns about ensuring privacy for researchers.

“Libraries maintain the idea that you should be able to use and access information, onsite at least, without having to declare everything about you and have it tracked,” Hinchliffe said.

She highlighted Resource Access for the 21st Century (RA21), a joint initiative between the International Association of Science, Technical, and Medical Publishers (STM) and the National Information Standards Organization (NISO), where she currently serves as a member of the privacy group. RA21’s home page opens with the statement: “authorizing access to content based on IP address no longer works in today’s distributed world.” Essentially, publishers argue that individual users should have to provide credentials, even if they are attempting to access library licensed content from a university computer.

“I am very concerned about this shift [away] from…on-campus seamless access through IP authentication, or through proxy servers and VPNs, that obscures the individual users…and certainly doesn’t have their use being tracked,” she said.

One of the goals of RA21 is “end-to-end traceability,” Hinchliffe said. While it’s possible to implement Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) authorization in a way that only a campus IT department would know who the user was, “built within SAML is also the capability to pass along an infinite number of identifiers.”

Such tracking could prove to be a boon for individualization and personalization, she said, “but my concern is, ‘who makes the decision?’”

Noting that she doesn’t want to see Spotify-style contracts from library vendors, in which users are unable to use a service without agreeing to tracking, Hinchliffe said “I think one of the things that’s going to be increasingly important for us all to remember is that any time we see that there’s a [vendor] ‘privacy policy’…that it is a data collection and management policy.”

Personalization and convenience

Presenting a contrasting view on this topic, Harnish agreed that “personalization [with electronic resources] has gotten a bit of a bad reputation. Our friends in the commercial space have used our behavior and our choices to follow us around our engagements on the web.” Describing examples, such as advertisements that follow users around the web based on their recent search habits, she added that “the helpfulness of this experience is often offset by…its invasiveness.”

However, she added that “if we look at the notion of personalization in the library space, I think that there’s a huge opportunity to use similar ideas [and] similar solutions in the service of good.”

Discovery, she argued, is “the intersection of intellectual context and the position of a resource in the knowledge landscape…and what I’ll call ‘use context.’ Use context can encapsulate the user’s interests, his or her authorization context, or the device context—how or where the user is interacting with the content. The more that we know about the user, the more effective we can be at customizing the interaction with the library and its knowledge assets.”

If a user agrees to allow libraries and library vendors to track their use of these assets, the discovery experience can be better tailored to that user’s individual needs, Harnish said. In a hypothetical example, she noted that a search for “football concussions” could come from the parent of a child interested in the sport, a medical professional conducting research on the NFL, a medical professional conducting research on concussions in European football, a materials engineer working on safer helmets, or none of the above.

“Much of this can be enhanced…by incorporating the derived context of machine learning and looking at [a user’s past] actions as a way of understanding interest,” Harnish said.

Ongoing merger

Chad observed that in his work as a consultant primarily serving the UK and Europe, he is seeing a desire to merge library and educational technology. In the past, the most common questions he received from universities were about changing the library’s integrated library system (ILS) or Library Services Platform (LSP), but recently “I got a call from a university in Wolverhampton near Birmingham and they started a little differently. They said their university was implementing a university-wide digital platform, and part of that is a library system. But it’s just part of it. There’s repositories, there’s archives, there’s learning management systems [LMS]…. We’re going to replace all of that stuff, and…we want it to be a coherent platform that works across our institution.”

There are “library resources” and “learning resources” he noted, and students primarily want simplified access to both. “The learning resources sit in the [LMS], and they could be lecture notes, they could be videos, and there are things that sit in the library systems—journals, books, and other [resources].”

When it comes to coursework, students often find reading lists more helpful than library discovery solutions, Chad said. Students “are doing course x, y, or z, and you want to know what you need to read this week in order to get your assignment done. You go to your reading list software, and it shows you where those resources are, whether they are learning modules, lectures, or a journal article.

This situation is likely to lead to the growth of platforms that more seamlessly incorporate these various resources, Chad suggested.

Drones on the rise

Drones have been in use by military and intelligence agencies for years, but recently, smaller versions of these remote-controlled aircraft are appearing in a wide range of commercial and consumer applications, Joiner said. She pointed out that movie and TV studios are using drones for less expensive aerial filming; outdoor venues, for creating intricate light shows; farmers and agribusiness companies, to monitor the health of crops; beaches, to watch out for sharks; and wildlife reserves to guard against poachers.

In university settings, libraries should be watching these trends closely, since drones potentially could be used by researchers in many academic fields. For example, she noted that researchers at the University of South Florida recently used university-owned drones to survey and map out sinkholes in Pasco County, FL.

Public and school libraries may also want to consider offering patrons hands-on access to drones as an emerging technology. Joiner noted that the Idaho STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Action Center was recently awarded a grant to equip several of the state’s K–12 schools with drones.

Round two

Following the first round of short presentations, each panelist briefly discussed a second technology trend that they have been watching.

Harnish outlined the concept of the “attention economy,” noting that “information consumes the interest of its recipients…. A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention. And participants in the information economy need to find ways to capture and allocate available attention efficiently.”

Corporations such as Google and Facebook monetize consumer attention, and as such, these companies are driven to maximize the time and attention that users spend with their services and tools. Libraries have a different mission—to connect users to the world of ideas. But in order to compete for patron attention, libraries must find ways to provide immediate, personalized, and simplified access to appropriate content.

On a related note, Joiner discussed the proliferation of online news and information regarding technology, and suggested leading blogs and other resources such as MIT Technology Review, WIRED, Fast Company, TechCrunch, Gizmodo, recode, and others to keep track of technology trends outside of or adjacent to the library field.

Chad discussed the prevalence of online platforms in technology-driven consumer services, and noted that libraries have started to move in that direction, with cloud-based, software-as-a-service LSPs encroaching on the ILS market. However, libraries are still, in many ways, a niche market, and currently LSP vendors “are maybe opening up their platforms to maybe a few customers. If they really want to get AI embedded [for example] few of them have the scale to do that…. So in order to make that happen, a platform has to say ‘who are the big guys in AI’ and open up library technology, and bring in those independent software vendors,” he said, adding that this is partly the premise of the FOLIO project.

Kim highlighted the application of user experience (UX) and human centered design (also called design thinking) principles to social entrepreneurship. Design thinking “basically means ‘problem solving.’ You [have] a problem, you have certain constraints, and you try to find the most innovative solution that will meet the users’ needs the best.” It also involves incorporating a range of perspectives from many different stakeholders. “It’s not just a point of view from businesspeople who are looking to profit as much as possible. It also considers what users really need.”

As an example of human-centered design principles applied to social entrepreneurship, Kim discussed the Aravind Eye Care System in India, which has saved the eyesight of millions of patients with free or low-cost cataract surgery since its founding in 1976. Specifically, Kim described how Aravind uses money from paying patients to subsidize procedures from those who are too poor to pay. And, she noted, when the prices of the intraocular lenses used in its procedures started to rise, threatening Aravind’s model, the system launched Aurolab, an onsite facility that enables it to manufacture its own lenses. Libraries, Kim suggested, might consider examining how economically sustainable social ventures work, to see if any efficiencies or concepts might apply to their own models.

Hinchliffe concluded the panel’s discussion with a call to action, discussing “increased awareness of [the need for] diversity, equity, and inclusion” in technology-related fields. “I’m quite heartened that we have an increased conversation. These issues have become mainstream topics,” she said, citing several of the presentations and panels at the Midwinter conference. “However, one of the things that worries me is that we ‘perform’ concern about these issues, but we do not ‘reform’ our own institutions, associations, and organizations. While we have raised attention to these issues, we have not yet succeeded in addressing these issues.”

Matt Enis About Matt Enis

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

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