• Written by Jana Gombitova
    2 December 2015

This year Border Sessions provided a packed list of great sessions around the theme of how emerging technologies could shape our future society.

The agenda topics aimed to spur you to take action, catch your attention or simply widen your perspective to include subjects you do not necessarily bump into on a daily basis. At least these were the emotions I experienced during the event. Here are some of the topics that I found particularly captivating:

The digital divide is no longer about access – now it’s about security
We have information available at a mouse-click. The question is, how it is used or misused? Writer and artist James Bridle gave a powerful example of how using the information available online can reveal pressing issues in our society. He used publicly available information about flight patterns to track down and film luxury private jet companies being employed by the UK government to conduct secretive, night-time deportations.

But all this data can be also misused. In his presentation, Christopher Soghoian of the American Civil Liberties Union shared that we are progressing away from surveillance-friendly tools towards more encryption by default. But making such measures available to all is a challenge we can already foresee. And it is not only the privacy of individuals which is at risk, but as security and human rights expert Ben Hayes pointed out, certain social groups are also under the threat of being classified as potentially risky, simply because of the availability of information.

Excitement around big data may lead to loss of trust
Where is the border between analysing social media data and surveillance? Hayes asked if big data can help predict social change or will it simply result in negative profiling? This opened another door onto the topic of security of information, privacy and social change. We face a risk that any tech user will lose trust in the internet. Surveillance may eventually diminish the potential for positive impact of technology and information.

Our ethical views define the software we create
We base our decisions on judgement as well as logic and these decisions create the tools people use. Thus the code that makes things is not objective. How a search engine, for example, decides what results are relevant for us, is based on an algorithm which is in turn based also on someone’s ethical standpoint. Data scientist Joerg Blumtritt revealed potential consequences such algorithms might have and how important this issue is. His solution was simple and elegant: open source. Open source tools provide a window onto the judgments behind the tools themselves.

It was not only the topics and powerful speakers at Border Sessions that resulted in a great event. I found the different formats of the sessions – from presentations to a tribunal simulation – especially refreshing as they allowed you to dive into the subject from a different perspective. Border Sessions Festival 2015 gave space for many compelling questions to be posed, and now it is up to us to decide how to act.

Jana Gombitova is junior product manager at Akvo, based in Amsterdam. You can follow her on Twitter @janagombitova.