National Forum on Web Privacy and Web Analytics

We had the fantastic experience of participating in the National Forum on Web Privacy and Web Analytics in Bozeman, Montana last month. This event brought together around forty people from different areas and types of libraries to do in-depth discussion and planning about privacy issues in libraries. Our hosts from Montana State University, Scott Young, Jason Clark, Sara Mannheimer, and Jacqueline Frank, framed the event with different (though overlapping) areas of focus. We broke into groups based on our interests from a pre-event survey and worked through a number of activities to identify projects. You can follow along with all the activities and documents produced during the Forum in this document that collates all of them.

Drawing of ship
Float your boat exercise

            While initially worried that the activities would feel too forced, instead they really worked to release creative ideas. Here’s an example: our groups drew pictures of boats with sails showing opportunities, and anchors showing problems. We started out in two smaller subgroups of our subgroups and drew a boat, then met with the large subgroup to combine the boat ideas. This meant that it was easy to spot the common themes—each smaller group had written some of the same themes (like GDPR). Working in metaphor meant we could express some more complex issues, like politics, as the ocean—something that always surrounds the issue and can be helpful or unhelpful without much warning. This helped us think differently about issues and not get too focused on our own individual perspective.

The process of turning metaphor into action was hard. We had to take the whole world of problems and opportunities and come up with how these could be realistically accomplished. Good and important ideas had to get left behind because they were so big there was no way to feasibly plan them, certainly not in a day or two. The differing assortment of groups (which were mixable where ideas overlapped) ensured that we were able to question each other’s assumptions and ask some hard questions. For example, one of the issues Margaret’s group had identified as a problem was disagreement in the profession about what the proper limits were on privacy. Individually identifiable usage metrics are a valuable commodity to some, and a thing not to be touched to others. While everyone in the room was probably biased more in favor of privacy than perhaps the profession at large is, we could share stories and realities of the types of data we were collecting and what it was being used for. Considering the realities of our environments, one of our ideas to bring everyone from across the library and archives world to create a unified set of privacy values was not going to happen. Despite that, we were able to identify one of the core problems that led to a lack of unity, which was, in many cases, lack of knowledge about what privacy issues existed and how these might affect institutions. When you don’t completely understand something, or only half understand it, you are more likely to be afraid of it.

            On the afternoon of the second day and continuing into the morning of the third day, we had to get serious and pick just one idea to focus on to create a project plan. Again, the facilitators utilized a few processes that helped us take a big idea and break it down into more manageable components. We used “Big SCAI” thinking to frame the project: what is the status quo, what are the challenges, what actions are required, and what are the ideals. From there we worked through what was necessary for the project, nice to have, unlikely to get, and completely unnecessary to the project. This helped focus efforts and made the process of writing a project implementation plan much easier.

Laptop with postits on wall.
What the workday looked like.

Writing the project implementation plan as a group was made easier by shared documents, but we all commented on the irony of using Google Docs to write privacy plans. On the other hand, trying to figure out how to write in groups and easily share what we wrote using any other platform was a challenge in the moment. This reality illustrates the problems with privacy: the tool that is easiest to use and comes to mind first will be the one that ends up being used. We have to create tools that make privacy easy (which was a discussion many of us at the Forum had), but even more so we need to think about the tradeoffs that we make in choosing a tool and educate ourselves and others about this. In this case, since all the outcomes of the project were going to be public anyway, going on the “quick and easy” side was ok.

            The Forum project leaders recently presented about their work at the DLF Forum 2018 conference. In this presentation, they outlined the work that they did leading up to the Forum, and the strategies that emerged from the day. They characterized the strategies as Privacy Badging and Certifications, Privacy Leadership Training, Privacy for Tribal Communities and Organizations, Model License for Vendor Contracts, Privacy Research Institute, and a Responsible Assessment Toolkit. You can read through the thought process and implementation strategies for these projects and others yourself at the project plan index. The goal is to ensure that whoever wants to do the work can do it. To quote Scott Young’s follow-up email, “We ask only that you keep in touch with us for the purposes of community facilitation and grant reporting, and to note the provenance of the idea in future proposals—a sort of CC BY designation, to speak in copyright terms.”

            For us, this three-day deep dive into privacy was an inspiration and a chance to make new connections (while also catching up with some old friends). But even more, it was a reminder that you don’t need much of anything to create a community. Provided the right framing, as long as you have people with differing experiences and perspectives coming together to learn from each other, you’ve facilitated the community-building.  

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