Dangerous Data

I once worked on the data management team for a large healthcare provider. There is an incredible amount of power and possibility in using data to empower and enact dramatic changes – especially in large traditionally slow-moving organizations. That said, there is an inherent risk for our own individual and group biases to seep into the algorithm and output from such systems.

In this episode of TED Radio hour, “Can We Trust The Numbers?” computer and data scientists share some of the overlooked aspects of where data science can fail our good intentions.

“It’s more than you think. It’s about power because they get to decide what experiment. It’s about power because they get to math-splain. It’s also about power because they get to decide what success looks like.”

Bonus points for Kathy O’Neil coining the phrase, “Math-splain”.  😀

(via Jackie)


Internet Health Advisory

I’m the “computer guy” in my family. Which means I’m often asked about what to buy or use, if an offer online is legit or a scam, and what to do when something breaks – always the guy when something breaks. 🙂 Most of my advice is reacting to someone’s inquiry. Yet this time friends, I have an Internet health advisory to share with you all. You didn’t ask for it, it’s my opinion, but I love you and think you should consider it.

Over the last year I’ve examined how I use the Internet and am trying to to better. Social media, a never-ending stream of terrible news 1, and always more things I could be reading/doing than there is time for, have motivated me to consider how I approach my consumption and participation on the web.

First bit of advice, get off social media. Bookmark a few sites to check. Sign up for an RSS service and throw a few URLs in. Foster Kramer writes 2 in a “An open memo, to all marginally-smart people/consumers of internet “content””

“By going to websites as a deliberate reader, you’re making a conscious choice about what you want a media outlet to be—as opposed to letting an algorithm choose the thing you’re most likely to click on. Or! As opposed to encouraging a world in which everyone is suckered into reading something with a headline optimized by a social media strategist armed with nothing more than “best practices” for conning you into a click.”

Get off of the services that try to tell you what to read and find the things that you want to read.

Second, make and find smaller communities. Either by pruning your friend list (do you need to know what someone you went to high school with – who you haven’t talked to in 20 years – had for lunch?)3, following a more selective group of people (and never brands), and turning off notifications for every bloop and beep these services try to innodate you with.

This article on “tiny, weird online communities” resonated with me and I hope it encourages you as well.

“The mainstream social internet is so big; everyone is connected to everyone, over a billion on Facebook alone. The consequences of connection — fake news, radicalization, massive targeted harassment campaigns, algorithmically-generated psychological torment, inane bullshit — were not part of what we were sold. We don’t really have the option of moving our lives off of the internet, and coordinated boycotts of our monstrous platforms have been brief and mostly fruitless. But many of us found ways to renegotiate the terms of how we spent our time online. Rather than the enormous platforms that couldn’t decide if, let alone how they had contributed to the election of a deranged narcissist or the rise of the virulently racist alt-right or a pending nuclear holocaust, why not something smaller, safer, more immediately useful?”

In the XOXO Slack the excellent Andy McMillan commented on this article with, “That’s a point I reflected on quite a lot in 2017. We’re really not built to handle this kind of ongoing awareness of every way every person on the planet is suffering.

Andy’s right. It’s good to be aware of what is going on in the world. It’s good to try to push yourself to be a better, more emphatic person, but at some point too much is too much for any one person. Don’t do that to yourself.

I spent more time in Slack than Facebook or Twitter this past year. I spoke up more in the communities I’m involved in online. 4 Sure, I’ll still post a few things to social media to let folks know what my family is up to. But most of my positive interaction with folks has been through smaller, tighter-knit, communities than sprawling Mega Malls of Madness. I don’t need marketing folks spewing “How do you do fellow kids?” stuff at me on Instagram and Facebook. I’d rather join a small community and listen and talk to folks interested in the same thing.

Third, pick up a phone, invite some friends over, go outside. A few years ago a good friend would organize gatherings of friends. It was an event I always looked forward to. A few good friends together in a room for an evening playing cards, board games, and experiencing each others company. I’ve decided to not wait for an invitation (I know you’re busy Ted and I love you!) and start hosting more get-togethers myself. Just this past weekend I had about 10 good friends going back years show up and hang out. It was great. No matter how close you are to someone over the Internet, nothing can replace being in the same room together.

So friends, as we enter the year of 2018, please consider this advisory from your computer guy. I know it’s hard. I know it’s easy to fill the little moments of boredom with one more scroll. If we’re honest with ourselves, what do we have to show for it, and what could we have done with that time instead?

You want an easy start? Invite me to the next poker night. 🙂

Image via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons

  1. Not in journalistic quality, which is a problem in itself, but in the context of what kind of events news is reporting on.

  2. (via Kottke)

  3. Yes, I realize I’m overusing the whole “lunch” trope. I hope you know what I mean here.

  4. Another bit of tangential advice – always punch up, never punch down when talking to others. Encourage over discourage. Life is too short for negativity.

A Social Construct

I point out that I am a black woman with a political-science degree who writes about race and culture for a living, who has indeed read “those books.” I find her blanket justification of “race is a social construct” overly simplistic. “Race is just a social construct” is a retort I get quite often from white people who don’t want to talk about black issues anymore. A lot of things in our society are social constructs—money, for example—but the impact they have on our lives, and the rules by which they operate, are very real. I cannot undo the evils of capitalism simply by pretending to be a millionaire.

A poignant quote from Ijeoma Oluo interviewing Rachel Dozeal, the White Woman Who Identifies as Back.

Year One at the Wikimedia Foundation

Hairy, scary, and quite contrary.

What a year. When I published my two month reflection we had our Executive Director recently leave the organization after concern and frustration over their leadership, a sizable number of co-workers left related to the internal difficulties, and a sizable chunk of our bigger communities were rightfully antagonistic toward the foundation. It’s amazing we got anything done. 🙂

But we did, in spite of it all. I look back at just the teams I work with and can see a marked improvement in the trust in leadership, community relationships, and the actual products we develop and deliver to help folks around the projects.

I’m also encouraged by the formalization of the support community liaisons offer communities and product teams. We’re learning from our mistakes – not all the time, not everywhere – but we’ve built up some intrinsic knowledge on what to do, what not to do, and how to succeed when working with volunteers in the movement.

This is another reflection – mostly a ramble – to help me see what has happened and prepare for what is next. Enjoy, if that’s your sort of thing.


One of the complexities of the Wikimedia movement has recently dawned on me. The movement is vast, like ALL OF HUMANITY-level vast. Anyone with Internet access can be part of it. That’s a lot of voices.

Within the movement there are groups, some tightly affiliated like chapters and user groups, other loosely affiliated around a subject or interests (like maps or COI concerns), and then the multitude of affiliations any individual can muster in their contributions. From wiki gnomes to adopters of typos, to uploads of freely licensed cultural artifacts, to folks to take thousands of photos of video game paraphernalia.

A lot of time these are not separate groups. They overlap and intermingle. There are also editors that are not self-defined members of any group(s).

Then there’s the Wikimedia Foundation. About 285 people trying to understand and respond to the needs of all the above. And prioritize, and accomplish constantly progressing goals.

The scope of needs from the community is inherently diverse – we are a diverse movement and richer for it! 3D files, maps, better vandal tools, anti-harassment, GLAM, reading, mobile, editing, translation…the list goes on.

I sometimes worry that we (the foundation) are small, making it hard to focus on what to take care of next. I grapple with my own agency in the organization and the responsibilities to the teams I support. There’s so much to be done.

To compound that there is a feeling that we have hired volunteers from the community to work on things that interest them, further exacerbating the disconnect between what the communities wants and what we can deliver. What individual engineers like may be different that what the community wants. I’d like to think that the overwhelming majority of the work we do is a direct result of what the community needs and wants, but every once in a while I hear of something that doesn’t make sense to me – I fully admit this could be due to a simple lack of understating on my part.

What the community wants might even be, dare I say, boring and hard to rally the troops around. That can be tough to take on when there are so many shiny and interesting things just in arms reach.

Don’t get me wrong, I think we’re maturing in many ways and initiatives like the Community Tech team are a marked improvement. This is just a little thing in the back of my mind I’m bringing forward here.

An aside, I sometimes worry about us shying away from work that appears to be impossibly challenging – like say a single responsive design for MediaWiki. I also worry, as I myself have discovered, that once we hire volunteers it is rather hard to keep being a volunteer! I know my own participation in the MediaWiki Stakeholders’ group has waned in the last year, with the only significant contribution being attending and presenting at a few conferences.

It’s like anything you enjoy becoming your work, at the end of a long day you sometimes just want to put that aside and do something else.


I think the way the grant information (and project in general) around Structured Data on Commons is an exemplary case of openness, proper early communication, and quick honest reply to community inquiry regarding details of the grant and otherwise. I think since our new ED has settled in we’re starting to be a little more open and less “gun-shy” in how we operate. I’m encouraged daily by particular staff and community members that keep us honest and remind us of the value of transparency. Many of the folks I work with know how to push on this facet of our movement in a constructive and collegiate way that makes taking that step into the open possible.

Toward a Healthier Community

I still am worried about folks who closely identify their sense of identity/self-worth/value with their contributions to the movement. I think we have many folks who are less than satisfied in other areas of life – or solely find satisfaction in the movement – who persist in our projects. I feel no ill will toward these folks, but genuine concern for their well-being. 1

Sometimes conversations can be frustrating. People on both sides can feel like they’re explaining something to a teenager – lots of talk, trying to make a convincing argument, but sometimes they listen and sometimes they just have to experience the situation themselves before learning.

I think we value too strongly contributions over behavior. While the traditional ‘workplace’ analogies have many flaws in an open and expansive movement like Wikimedia, I do think that if you’re not someone I can work with, I don’t want to work with you. Regardless of how smart, capable, experienced, etc. Life’s too short.

I think about my own experiences as a volunteer in other capacities. I’ve been part of a few communities for only a short time not because I wasn’t interested in the cause, but because the individuals participating were not kind to others – new comers in particular. That removes any emotional energy I could be using elsewhere.

However, I’m often commended by community and staff for remaining level-headed even in some of the challenging conversations that have ensued in the last year. That’s not to brag, but to say that even after a year I’m not yet a cynical husk of my former self. 🙂

The nice folks that I can get along with outnumber any grumps. I’ve even been surprised by how ‘the brightest burn fastest’ – that folks who skew toward extremes often burn out faster than those who follow the slow and steady.

My involvement in the Code of Conduct has been small, but sometimes frustrating. Some folks don’t like it. A lot more do. I recently caught this video from Raph Koster as he talked about the responsibilities involved in hosting online communities. It’s pretty much exactly why I think the behavioral side of our movement is so important.


It’s interesting to me, as a college-educated, straight, white, dude in the mid-west, how often I find myself in conversations with folks not like me. It’s incredibly refreshing. I grew up in a poor, rural, very white county. The diversity in backgrounds, experiences, and voices is amazing. I’m using the meaning of that word in the literal sense – “Fill with astonishment”. It makes my own work better, the output of my team more nuanced, and the impact we have shows more care.

We need more of it and I’m happy to see that not only is my employer committed to it, but many efforts across the movement are as well.


In the last year (and in particular the last few months) I’ve tried to be more aware and involved in discussions about strategy. From our quarterly goals, to annual planning, to strategy-wide discussions on the future of the movement. I have what I think is a decent understanding of what strategy is and why it is important, but never fully felt involved in how strategy is developed in any of the past organizations I worked for.

It’s not my strong suit. I feel like I’m very much a tactical “keep things running smoothly” kind of person, so expanding my knowledge on strategy and annual planning has been challenging. We have an internal study group and one of the suggestions was to read a book called the Starfish and the Spider. I thought it was a good read and helpful to understand the conundrums of being part of a spider organization that supports a starfish organization. 2

Work is Weird

I still struggle with understanding the norms of professionalism in the organization. I’m encouraged by the organization’s support of allowing employees to contribute to participate as volunteers – even when that means expressing options tha counter staff-lead initiatives or work. There are still occasions when I am pleasantly shocked that a co-worker responds in such a public matter. In my experiences at more traditionally organized ‘top-down’ organizations folks wouldn’t even consider speaking so openly and with the fear that the result would not be kind. I’m happy, but still baffled sometimes, that folks speak up regardless of hierarchy.

The diversity of initiatives and voices can make things seem a little like a cacophony. There is a lot of agency, if you’re willing to put in the effort, of defining the work to be done and how to approach it.

Working remotely from home has its ups-and-downs. I’ve started not going out as much with the cold weather over the last few months. I’m hoping to change that as the prospect of leaving my cozy little hole increases with the change in seasons. My wife is currently involved in about a dozen different operations, most of which afford her the ability to work from home as well. Having my family in arms reach can be helpful when having a stressful day. Hugs from a two-year-old a few feet away is a must in any future work arrangement.

I also need to start bugging friends to get out for lunch. I haven’t been very good about that as of late.3

Travel is something I’ve always enjoyed – especially when I have the privilege of doing so for work. I really enjoy meeting new people, listening to their interests and frustrations and learning more about how things work. It’s exhausting, tough work to be “on” for many hours in a day (and many days in a row!) as a representative of the foundation. I don’t take the responsibility lightly and try to get as much out of any event as possible. But I will be honest, I really love it.

I still struggle with confidence in my work. I work for a well-respected organization, with many smart people with impressive professional experience – and that applies equally to the folks I work with in our communities! I’m much more confident now a year later in knowing how to get stuff done, what to pay attention to, who to include, and how to organize discussions, but I’m still very much the “Gee golly, I’m sure glad to be here!” kind of guy.  I’ve been a little more bold in asking for help and leading conversations when I think necessary. So far? No one has complained. 4

Things they don’t tell you when you join the foundation

As a small aside, I was recently asked what sort of items would I include in our existing on boarding materials. I found out after the fact that many of my thoughts here are already shared in our documentation, but I must have missed them! Here’s my short list:

  1. Understanding the relationship between the foundation and communities. It’s different from other open-source/knowledge organizations. The communities came first, then the foundation. That might be different for folks use to a more ‘traditional’ model of org first then volunteers. Especially around decision-making and when and where the WMF becomes involved (or purposefully does not).
  2. Be okay with asking for help and proactively reaching out to folks with questions. We’re a good-sized organization, with a larger volunteer base that a single person could not be fully be aware of all the things all the time. We are also very remote friendly. These two things can lead to feeling a little lost – especially when new.
  3. I think this is understood as a certain level of professionalism regardless of your employ, but the movement has a low tolerance of BS. I don’t mean outright lying – which is inexcusable pretty much anywhere – but in over-promising with good intent. Just state the facts, don’t make assumptions (again, even with good intents), and make sure any claims can be backed up with data, experiences, community discussion, etc.
  4. Many folks are drawn to participate in the movement by ideological goals set forth in our mission and values. These are good, inspiring goals to aim toward. We also live in a world limited by time and space. 🙂 I think it’s prudent to help newcomers understand that the way forward is a balance between the two. Some community members (like any member of society at large) are strongly ideological, others more pragmatic. Being able to understand the two and how to navigate the conversations between is the only way this all works.
  5. Change is a constant. Sometimes it’s slowly, sometimes quickly. Being OK with that and having a healthy balance in the gaps in between is important. Perhaps not specific to foundation work, but remote work, with multiple responsibilities and efforts (spinning plates) you can sometimes start your day feeling underwhelmed/overwhelmed and end the day with the exact opposite. Ok, maybe it’s not that dramatic, but the fluctuation is noticeably more present here than in past experiences. I think that the fact that our movement is so global, or products/technology so diverse (mobile, to data analytics, to editing, to search to…), and our projects so active that it can be a little jarring.


Wow, I somehow ended up supporting more than just Discovery over the course of this year, and successfully at that! I’ve been helping the Reading department with a few of their products. It’s interesting to see the differences in style between the teams and how they approach organizing their work. So far my plate is full, but manageable.

The search team is almost ready to share some of the really impactful work around search engine results page. Bringing in content from sister projects to the results and showing richer metadata around the results I think will really help folks trying to find information “on-wiki”.

Reading has a new feature that we’re slowly rolling out called Page Previews. It’s currently the most popular beta feature on the English Wikipedia (and pretty popular elsewhere) and will soon be available for all folks as a default setting. While not revolutionary, it’s an evolutionary approach to quickly surfacing more information to folks who visit the site. 5

Something Like a Conclusion

I like the folks I work with. They are some of the most compassionate and supportive folks I’ve been thrown together with. I’m impressed with the leadership folks I work with in trying to keep things organized and well understood across teams and departments. We’re not perfect, but we try to assume good faith at every turn and are genuinely caring in how we work with one another.

I think I’ll stick around.


  1. See this article about mental health and Wikipedia

  2. I’m being purposefully obtuse in describing the book. You should read it.

  3. Local friends, if you are reading this, please call. 🙂

  4. Which means, to me, that I should be a little more secure in knowing I’m doing the right thing.

  5. Oh, and don’t worry. You can turn it off.

Who started the (dumpster) fire?

I’ve been thinking about how the divide in ideologies of conservatism and liberalism has grown in the last few years.1 It’s a concerning trend and doesn’t help to come to any compromise or shared understanding. Too many opportunities for talking past one another.

Today I happened across two interesting visualization and related articles.

The first is from Lena Groeger (via Flowingdata.com) that shows the political polarization in the American public from 1994 to 2015.


The interesting point to me is that since about 1999 till 2012 the Democratic median did not move; it stayed pretty consistently halfway between “mostly liberal” and “mixed”. The Republican median however, started to drift more toward the right (pun intended); “consistently conservative” starting in 2004.

While just one set of data – via Pew surveys – it indicates that the Republican mindset began its journey toward an extreme earlier than that of the Democratic ideologies.

Then there’s this study from the Columbia Journalism Review which indicates that the widening of the gap between median political ideologies was not done in equal measure by both sides – in short, it wasn’t access to technology (the Internet and social media) that lead to the widening gap.


Looking at the report it’s clear that both sides weren’t operating equally (with access to the same tools) in spreading biased and outright inaccurate information. It was the more conservative right-wing mindset that was OK with creating public discourse with, well, bullshit. At the center? Bretbart and company.

Our analysis challenges a simple narrative that the internet as a technology is what fragments public discourse and polarizes opinions, by allowing us to inhabit filter bubbles or just read “the daily me.” If technology were the most important driver towards a “post-truth” world, we would expect to see symmetric patterns on the left and the right. Instead, different internal political dynamics in the right and the left led to different patterns in the reception and use of the technology by each wing. While Facebook and Twitter certainly enabled right-wing media to circumvent the gatekeeping power of traditional media, the pattern was not symmetric.

Well, that’s rather unfortunate.

I’ve heard from many folks on both sides of the gulf of ideologies that we should listen to the other side, open our minds, be considerate, etc. I agree with that – as an ideal. In reality, that’s really hard to do when one side appears to have a foundation laid in sand – by which I mean false accusations, bullshit, conjecture, and lies.

But ugh, this is all at the macro to global level. We’re looking at “the whole thing”. That’s not congruent with folks who say “Not why I voted for Trump”.

That’s frustrating. At the individual level – I get it.

Pretty awesome person danah boyd, an advocate and researcher who talks often on youth culture and the internet shared a really interesting essay on ‘Failing to See, Fueling Hatred“. While not directly tied to conservative thinking or the “alt-right” media landscape I think it captures many of the frustrations more right-leaning folks are feeling and how the allure of the conservative media landscape makes for stronger rationalization in support of the current administration.

Without understanding the complex interplay of things, it’s hard not to feel resentful about certain things that we do see. But at the same time, it’s not possible to hold onto the complexity. I can appreciate why individuals are indignant when they feel as though they pay taxes for that money to be given away to foreigners through foreign aid and immigration programs. These people feel like they’re struggling, feel like they’re working hard, feel like they’re facing injustice. Still, it makes sense to me that people’s sense of prosperity is only as good as their feeling that they’re getting ahead. And when you’ve been earning $40/hour doing union work only to lose that job and feel like the only other option is a $25/hr job, the feeling is bad, no matter that this is more than most people make. There’s a reason that Silicon Valley engineers feel as though they’re struggling and it’s not because they’re comparing themselves to everyone in the world. It’s because the standard of living keeps dropping in front of them. It’s all relative.

This is all to say, there’s no clear path forward. This divide makes relationships difficult when identifying oneself with political ideologies. Especially when ideologies are dirtied with intellectual distrust.

Title inspiration (more)

  1. Follow me on Twitter if you want more of that. If you want less, uh, sorry. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯