Being digitally invisible: Policy analytics and a new type of digital divide

Citation: Longo, J., Kuras, E., Smith, H., Hondula, D. M. and Johnston, E. (2017), Technology Use, Exposure to Natural Hazards, and Being Digitally Invisible: Implications for Policy Analytics. Policy & Internet. Early View doi:10.1002/poi3.144


Policy analytics involves the combination of new data sources – e.g., from mobile smartphones, Internet of Everything (IoE) devices, and electronic payment cards – with new data analytics techniques for informing and directing public policy.

The concept of the digital divide has been around for some time now. Whether it focusses on basic ownership and access to digital tools, or the ability to use them effectively, the digital divide means that some people are not able to send information into or receive information across digital channels. If you haven’t got a computer, you can’t tweet about it.

The access part of the digital divide has diminished in recent years (mostly because of the falling cost of technology needed to get online, and efforts by corporations and governments to put mobile technology into people’s hands at low or no upfront costs), but the broader concept of who is represented online is still of concern to researchers and policymakers.

With the rise of new data sources (often referred to as “big data”) driving the possibilities for policy analytics, work undertaken at the Center for Policy Informatics at Arizona State University in early 2015 came to focus on those who do not use or own devices like smartphones, IoE devices and transaction cards.

We explored the possibility that people may be rendered digitally invisible if the signals from their daily actions are not generated or captured because they don’t carry the devices that “big data” presumes, and therefore don’t figure into policy analytics. Failing to observe the lived experience of those outside the “big data” world may result in policy analytics being biased, and policy interventions being misdirected as a result.

With my CPI colleagues Evan Kuras, Holly Smith, Dave Hondula, and Erik Johnson, we set out to determine whether the concept of the digitally invisible could be shown empirically by conducting an exploratory study with the participation of homeless individuals in Phoenix and the Phoenix Rescue Mission, in the context of extreme heat exposure.

The results of that work have been published in a special issue of the journal Policy & InternetIf you don’t have access to the online version at the publisher, the published version can be accessed here.

Do the digitally invisible exist? Perhaps surprising to some, homeless individuals in the United States have very good coverage in terms of mobile phone usage (this is partly a result of government programs, and partly because a mobile phone becomes a crucial technology when you don’t have a fixed addess). And public libraries and other access points provide computer resources and Internet access, leveling the digital playing field and lowering cost barriers.

Yet policy analytics is based not on active participation, as is the focus of the digital divide literature, but instead is based on passive data contributions (through “big data”). We think this is the key idea that distinguishes digitally invisible from the digital divide.

For those without a smartphone, without a bank account or credit card, without regular and ubiquitous Internet-connected computer access, living beneath and beyond the network of sensors, monitors and data capture points, their existence is being rendered increasingly invisible, with policy developed using a policy analytics approach biased against them, even if unintentionally. As a result, policymaking is blind to their existence and policy based on incomplete evidence will not reflect their reality.

We’re at the early stages of the policy analytics movement. But we argue that a contextual awareness and humility should guide the developing policy analytics approach, understanding that it offers only a partial picture of a reality that is influenced by the values we bring to the analysis. We recommend being vigilant in looking for those who are hidden and will do the same in our future work.

We look forward to your comments.

Using GitHub in Government: A Look at a New Collaboration Platform

Citation: Longo, J., & Kelley, T. M. (2016). GitHub use in public administration in Canada: Early experience with a new open collaboration tool. Canadian Public Administration. Vol. 59, no. 4, pp. 598–623.

(this blog post also published by the Center for Policy Informatics)


In late 2014, as a postdoc in open governance in the Center for Policy Informatics at Arizona State University, I became interested in the potential for using GitHub to facilitate collaboration on text documents. This was largely inspired by the 2012 TED Talk by Clay Shirky where he argued that open source programmers could teach us something about how to do open governance:

Somebody put up a tool during the copyright debate last year in the Senate, saying, “It’s strange that Hollywood has more access to Canadian legislators than Canadian citizens do. Why don’t we use GitHub to show them what a citizen-developed bill might look like?” 

If you’re not familiar with it, GitHub is a web-based project hosting service, principally used for distributed version control of software and website development projects. It has enjoyed rapid growth since its debut in 2008 and, with over 14 million users and over 35 million project repositories (as of April 2016), it is the largest source-code host on the Internet.

In 2014, increasing attention was being paid to the use of GitHub as a platform for document collaboration, with the possibility that it could serve to revolutionize the practice of knowledge sharing within organizations and be a mechanism for open governance.

Along with my CPI colleague Tanya Kelley (now a postdoc at the University of Michigan), and the support of CPI Director Erik Johnston, we set out to understand how GitHub was being used in public sector organizations in Canada, and how it might be used in future.

We placed GitHub within the context of the existing literature on software approaches to collaborative work and the idea of collaboration generally in public sector settings.

During the research and writing, the Brookings Institution TechTank published a series of three blog posts (starting here) where we speculated on what tools like GitHub might mean for public sector organizations.

For this research, we undertook a census of Canadian government and public servant accounts on GitHub and surveyed those users, supplemented by interviews with key government technology leaders.

This research has now been published in the journal Canadian Public Administration. (If you don’t have access to the full document through the publisher, you can also find it here).

Despite the growing enthusiasm for GitHub (mostly from those familiar with open source software development), and the general rhetoric in favour of collaboration, we suspected that getting GitHub used in public sector organizations for text collaboration might be an uphill battle – not least of which because of the steep learning curve involved in using GitHub, and its inflexibility when being used to edit text.

The history of computer-supported collaborative work platforms is littered with really cool interfaces that failed to appeal to users. The experience to date with GitHub in Canadian governments reflects this, as far as our research shows.

We found few government agencies having an active presence on GitHub compared to social media presence in general. And while federal departments and public servants on GitHub are rare, provincial, territorial, First Nations and local governments are even rarer.

For individual accounts held by public servants, most were found in the federal government at higher rates than those found in broader society (see Mapping Collaborative Software). Within this small community, the distribution of contributions per user follows the classic long-tail distribution with a small number of contributors responsible for most of the work, a larger number of contributors doing very little on average, and many users contributing nothing.

GitHub is still resisted by all but the most technically savvy. With a peculiar terminology and work model that presupposes a familiarity with command line computer operations and the language of software coding, using GitHub presents many barriers to the novice user. But while it is tempting to dismiss GitHub, as it currently exists, as ill-suited as a collaboration tool to support document writing, it holds potential as a useful platform for facilitating collaboration in the public sector.

As an example, to help understand how GitHub might be used within governments for collaboration on text documents, we discuss a briefing note document flow in the paper (see the paper for a description of this lovely graphic).

screen-shot-2017-01-21-at-8-54-24-pm

A few other findings are addressed in the paper, from why public servants may choose not to collaborate even though they believe it’s the right thing to do, to an interesting story about what propelled the use of GitHub in the government of Canada in the first place.

This was a fun paper to write, even though it is probably the end of my interest in GitHub specifically (the main finding being “there is no there there”). Nonetheless, we look forward to your comments.

A Court Ruling can be the Mother of Innovation

In our recent work on the use of GitHub in the Canadian public sector (forthcoming in the journal Canadian Public Administration), we found that a major force behind the Government of Canada’s decision to adopt GitHub in one context was a court ruling on whether the federal government’s websites were inaccessible to the disabled.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Human Rights Act, supplemented by provincial human rights acts, are the foundation upon which the legal bases for inclusive rights for those with disabilities in Canada are ensured (see, e.g., Michael Prince‘s 2009 book “Absent Citizens: Disability Politics and Policy in Canada“). Specifically, Section 15 of the Charter guarantees the equality rights of Canadians, including Canadians with disabilities:

Equality Rights

Equality before and under law and equal protection and benefit of law

 (1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

Affirmative action programs

(2) Subsection (1) does not preclude any law, program or activity that has as its object the amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

Nick Zap and Craig Montgomerie (see International Journal on E-Learning; and their follow-up here) speculated several years ago that public sector websites inaccessible to those with disabilities could be subject to a section 15 Charter challenge – and the case of Donna Jodhan has borne that out.

Jodhan, a legally blind Toronto resident, sued the Government of Canada in 2006 because citizen services made available via federal websites were inaccessible to her, despite the use of screen reader technology and her own technical proficiency.

The government argued that the accessibility of their websites and forms was not subject to a section 15 Charter ruling because the government provided alternative means of communication such as telephone, regular mail and in-person consultation.

On February 9 2011, the Federal Court rejected the government’s arguments and found that the inaccessibility of government websites was a violation of Jodhan’s Charter equality rights. The ruling stated that the government had a constitutional obligation to make every website within the federal hierarchy accessible to disabled clients and gave the government 15 months to achieve this (see Jodhan v. Canada (Attorney General), [2012]. FCA 161).

The Harper government subsequently appealed the decision. On May 30 2012, the Federal Court of Appeal unanimously rejected the federal government’s appeal. However, the Federal Court ruling was amended to apply to the TBS only, removed the court’s supervision of the implementation of the decision and restricted the Charter implications of the ruling (see Canada (Attorney General) v. Jodhan, [2012] FCA 161).

Despite what the Council of Canadians with Disabilities described as a partial setback (see “Jodhan Decision Advances Access to Web Sites for Persons with Vision Impairment“), the impact of the initial Federal Court ruling had already set in motion the series of events that would lead to the development of the Web Experience Toolkit, implementing new Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat web standards on accessibility, usability and interoperability.

Digitally Invisible – Call for Participation

How Digital Data Ignores the Homeless – An ASU Research Study

We are researchers in the School of Public Affairs and Center for Policy Informatics at Arizona State University, conducting research on how some members of society are not being represented in government datasets as we become increasingly reliant on digital services like smart phones, credit card transactions and Internet-connected devices.

Our hypothesis is that homeless individuals are especially likely to not be represented in these digital datasets – leading to a state we call digitally invisible. When government policy is made based on digital data, being digitally invisible means that those policies will not reflect the day-to-day reality of being homeless. Our study is an initial attempt to test this hypothesis, and to open a discussion about how the problems of the homeless can be better reflected in digital data with the long-term goal of improving homeless services and the wellbeing of the homeless.

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Digitally Invisible – Consent

We will work with Phoenix Heat Relief Network cooling centers and the City of Phoenix Human Services Department Homeless Programs to connect with their clients who self-identify as homeless. Individuals who express an interest in participating in this research will meet with a research team member and their support worker to confirm their interest in participating and to begin the study. At that meeting, this form will be explained to the participant and they will be asked to confirm that they are agreeing to participate. Two copies of the form will be signed by the research team member, and witnessed by the cooling center / homeless support services worker, and one copy will be given to the participant.

How Digital Data Ignores the Homeless – Research Study

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Digitally Invisible – Pre-Test Interview Questions

Following the confirmation of the participant’s interest in being involved in the study, a brief research interview will be conducted with study participants to understand their perceptions and concerns with respect to privacy, obtrusiveness of the device, and their experiences as a homeless person. This interview will be conducted in the presence of the cooling center or homeless services support worker. The estimated amount of time required to participate in this component is 10 minutes for each interview participant.

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Digitally Invisible – Post-Test Interview Questions

After the participant has carried the iButton for one week, an arrangement will be made for a follow-up meeting of a research team member, the cooling center or homeless services support worker and the participant. The device will be collected from the participant, and a brief research interview will be conducted to understand the participant’s perceptions and concerns with respect to privacy, obtrusiveness of the device, their experiences as a homeless person and scope for more complex data capture protocols and greater researcher/participant collaboration. The participant will be offered a $25 Visa Gift Card upon the return of the iButton to thanks them for participating in this research and to compensate them for their time and effort (see attachment 5)

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GitHub Tutorials at #CodeFest2014

I’m in my nation’s capital on August 14 and 15 to promote our projects on the Next Policy Challenge and the Use of GitHub in Canadian Governments. While I’m there, I will be offering beginner tutorials (like, really beginner) in the use of GitHub at the third annual Web Experience Toolkit CodeFest.

GitHub 101: Setting up and navigating will start with setting up a GitHub account, and move on to follow other users, watch some projects, join an organization and create a first repo. No command line, no Git, no deep principles of distributed version control. This session is for the true GitHub beginner – but by the end of this short session, participants will have faced their (legitimate) GitHub fears and be ready to interact with their designer and developer colleagues (well, at least not feel like a total n00b).

  • the PowerPoint slide deck for GitHub 101 is available here: GitHub 101 Tutorial (deck updated August 2015)

GitHub 102: Fork this repo! is for the new GitHub user who has lurked around the edges of GitHub for a while but whose profile page still shows “0 Contributions”. Building on the previous session (GitHub 101: Setting up and navigating), this session will focus on making contributions through GitHub.com and interacting with other users. Participants will “fork a repo”, flag an issue, issue a pull request, and manage pull requests from other users. It will culminate in each participant creating their very-own GitHub.io webpage. We’ll do all of this and not even peak at the command line. This session is for the true GitHub beginner – but by the end of this short session participants will have earned some props from their designer and developer colleagues and moved towards being a regular GitHub contributor.

  • the PowerPoint slide deck for GitHub 102 is available here: GitHub 102 Tutorial (deck updated August 2015)

Follow the conversation on Twitter using the hashtags #GitHub101 and #GitHub102

Use of GitHub in Public Administration in Canada: Research Project

Use of GitHub in Public Administration in Canada: Open Innovation in Code, Web and Prose

GitHub is a web-based project hosting service, principally used for distributed version control of software and website development projects. As of early 2014, the site has more than 5 million registered users working on over 12 million projects making it the largest hosting platform of its type. Increasing attention is being paid to the use of GitHub as a platform for document collaboration, with the possibility that it could serve to revolutionize the practice of knowledge sharing within organizations and of open governance amongst citizens and their governments. While the impact of GitHub has thus far largely been limited to open source software and website development, the present and potential impact on collaborative document development and citizen engagement suggests that a broader cast of public administrators should begin to consider the relevance of these tools for their work.

This project will review the existing literature on the use of GitHub for software and website development, and the recent anecdotal reports on its use for open collaboration on documents. With very little research to date on the use of GitHub in public sector institutions, and the absence of any systematic study of the use of GitHub in Canadian public sector settings, this exploratory research will survey this rapidly changing landscape as to how GitHub works and what it is being used for in public sector settings, along with a census of adoption in Canadian governments. Interviews with key government technology leaders and a survey of public service GitHub users will provide a foundation for assessing GitHub as a tool for facilitating public sector collaboration in Canada across a range of activities.

Research Team Members:

  • Erik Johnston, professor in the School of Public Affairs and Director of the Center for Policy Informatics at Arizona State University,
  • Justin Longo, post-doctoral fellow in the Center for Policy Informatics,
  • Tanya Kelley, phd student  in the School of Public Affairs.