How governments are responding to the public's demand for more data transparency

Innovative use of blockchain tech, data trusts, algorithm assessments, and cultural shifts abound.

person at white house podium wearing Guy Fawkes mask
  • A study published last year by the Pew Research Center found that most American's distrust the federal government, and there's plenty of evidence to suggest that the situation has yet to improve.
  • Governments have more access than ever to our private information, which creates an inherent tension between how they can use data for the public good while ensuring they aren't abusing citizens' privacy rights.
  • As emerging technologies mature, it will become more evident to the public which models are the most effective ways for governments to achieve the levels of transparency they've committed to delivering.

Government transparency is a central tenet of liberal democracies. In many countries, including the United States, transparency is enshrined into the constitution and laws, such as the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act.

Nevertheless, trust in government is on the decline. A study published last year by the Pew Research Center found that most American's distrust the federal government. Recent events such as the coronavirus pandemic, bailouts, and the Black Lives Matter protests casting a shadow over the Trump 2020 presidential campaign aren't likely to have improved the situation.

New Yorker tweet about Steven Mnuchin not releasing list of pandemic loan recipients


However, it's important to remember that this is hardly only an American problem. The Edelman Trust Barometer measures the trust in NGOs, business, government, and media. In 2020, the Barometer showed a drop in trust across many nations, including Canada, Australia, and the UK.

While governments risk decreasing public trust through their handling of events such as the pandemic, such events also create more pressure for governments to demonstrate transparency. The virus crisis results in inquiries into fields such as public health expenditure, while the protests are prompting calls to address institutional biases.

The increasingly prevalent use of technologies such as big data and AI means that governments have more access than ever to our private information. This creates an inherent tension between how governments can use data for the public good while ensuring they aren't abusing citizens' privacy rights.

European countries have recently been wrangling with this tension, as a privacy row has been brewing over the use of virus track-and-trace applications. An extremely effective way to curb infections happens to involve surveillance of the public with unprecedented precision and scale, and who's to say what all the implications of allowing it may be? Who will gain access to this data, either legitimately or by hacking? What will they do with it? Once the pandemic ends, what happens to these access privileges?

Using emerging technologies inevitably increases the scope and scale of government data collection. However, technology can also be put to use by governments that want to demonstrate their commitment to improving transparency.

Using blockchain to secure citizens’ data

The Austrian government has recently turned to blockchain as a means of establishing transparent communications about the COVID-19 crisis, between authorities, institutions, and citizens. Communication specialist A-Trust has launched the QualiSig project, on Ignis, part of the Ardor blockchain platform.

The project will use transparent, encrypted communications visible on the blockchain, and decentralized data storage to secure data against attacks. Citizens can control the use of their own data using qualified digital signatures.

Alexander Pfeiffer, Danube University Krems researcher, and partner to A-Trust, has a high degree of confidence that blockchain can help to increase trust in governments. "The more such solutions are used by government agencies and their partners, the more likely it is that citizens will regain confidence in the operations of these government authorities," he wrote in an email. "In addition, it will also be possible to work much more efficiently and on a much higher level of mutual trust between the parties involved."

This is the second time the Austrian government has engaged Jelurida, the Swiss firm that operates Ardor, in projects designed to improve transparency. In May this year, the Austrian government announced funding for a sustainability project designed to pinpoint sources of waste heat that could be redirected back into the energy grid. The "Hot City" project is a collaboration with the Austrian Institute of Technology and plans to use the Ignis chain for providing rewards to citizens submitting data about waste heat that can be harnessed for the public good.

An outspoken advocate of using blockchain to increase transparency, Lior Yaffe is the co-founder and director of Jelurida. "For the Austrian government, funding applied blockchain technologies has been a major priority for several years," he told Big Think. "Now, the Hot City and QualiSig projects show how a public blockchain can be used to store and display specific datasets, thus increasing transparency."

Demonstrating transparency in the electoral process

The potential for using blockchain to demonstrate electoral transparency has been hotly discussed for years now. The first such experiment took place in Denmark back in 2014, when the Liberal Alliance party used blockchain for one of its local elections.

At the time, the chair of the party's IT group made a bold prediction. "Voting is the most important process in a democratic society," he said. "Here, there is no doubt that new technology will play an increasing role going forward."

Person inside holding "India stay home" sign


However, as things stand in 2020, blockchain in elections hasn't moved forward at quite the pace many had previously predicted. Most local and national elections still take place using the same pen-and-paper process that has been in place for decades.

Nevertheless, the Indian election commission is among the latest to join the many government bodies that continue to experiment in this area.

Using transparency to combat corruption

Countries that have had problems with corruption going back generations have an especially steep mountain to climb when it comes to gaining public trust. Ukraine is one such example. As part of a bailout agreement in 2015, the International Monetary Fund demanded that the country's government do more to fight corruption.

In 2017, the Ukrainian government engaged blockchain firm Bitfury to store all of its data on the blockchain, in an attempt to demonstrate better transparency. In September that year, the justice ministry successfully used the technology for auctioning seized assets, and later transferred state property and land registries to the platform.

"We want to make the system of selling seized assets more transparent and secure," Deputy Justice Minister Serhiy Petukhov told Reuters, "so that the information there is accessible to everyone so that there aren't concerns about possible manipulation."

Creating a culture of transparency

While technology can be a useful tool for governments to demonstrate transparency, it's not the only means. Some countries, particularly those in northern Europe such as Norway and Denmark, are renowned for their culture of governmental transparency.

Canada also ranks highly in transparency from an international perspective, although its Corruption Perceptions Index score has been dropping.

It's intriguing that domestic perceptions don't always appear to align with these rankings. Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 crisis, some quarters of the Canadian academia have been highly critical of Justin Trudeau's government.

"Canada has a culture of secrecy. And it's one of the worst things about Canada," Amir Attaran, professor of law and epidemiology at University of Ottawa, told the CBC. "Our lack of transparency is a Canadian cultural trait, and it's one that hurts us. It's also part of a larger belief that the government knows best. But it doesn't."

In the same piece, Jean-Noé Landry, who works for a non-profit that advises governments on data transparency, takes a more nuanced approach. He attributes a culture with a high level of government trust as a potential pitfall when it comes to demanding transparency in a crisis such as COVID-19. As he puts it, Canadians "trust the government more in these kinds of situations, and maybe we lower our guard a bit and go along with them. [COVID-19] is not the type of thing where we should be lowering our standards."

Inside the algorithms

One government that has been almost universally lauded for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic is New Zealand's. Even before the crisis, the government there has been taking some impressive measures to demonstrate transparency. One example is its "algorithm assessment" program, launched in 2018, designed to introduce more transparency into how the government is deploying AI for its citizens.

Fourteen government agencies used a self-assessment method, underpinned by the government's own "principles for safe and effective use of data and analytics." The outcome was a report that acknowledged the need to retain human oversight over machine-led decisions and recommended using independent experts in the areas of privacy, ethics, and data expertise.

"We must prepare for the ethical challenges AI poses to our legal and political systems," stated Clare Curran, New Zealand's Minister for Digital Services, "as well as the impact AI will have on workforce planning, the wider issues of digital rights, data bias, transparency, and accountability are also important for this Government to consider."

Data trusts, a work in progress

In the UK, the Open Data Institute (ODI) has been working on several pilots to implement "data trusts" in collaboration with various government agencies, in an attempt to create more transparency. The ODI defines a data trust as a "legal structure that provides independent stewardship of data." They aim to increase access to data, along with providing confidence in the use of it.

The Institute worked on three pilots with varying degrees of success. The pilots attempted to bring transparency to food waste, illegal wildlife trade, and smart city implementation with a focus on parking data for green vehicles.

Open Data Institute

The findings from all three pilots were consolidated into a "lessons learned" document that highlighted the need to flesh out the overall concept and gain a shared understanding of what it means to all stakeholders for data trusts to become successful.

The ODI continues its work in this regard, exploring the use of data trusts and other data stewardship models.

Trust in flux

The events of 2020 so far have amounted to a perfect storm as far as testing government trust goes. Social distancing and shelter in place rules mean that there's a more significant reliance than ever on technology. However, governments need to continue to walk a tightrope of ensuring that they deploy the best technology available while demonstrating transparency.

As emerging technologies mature, it will become more evident to the public which models are the most effective ways for governments to achieve the levels of transparency they've committed to delivering.

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    "I was intrigued," says Ron Fouchier, in his rich, Dutch-accented English, "in how little things could kill large animals and humans."

    It's late evening in Rotterdam as darkness slowly drapes our Skype conversation.

    This fascination led the silver-haired virologist to venture into controversial gain-of-function mutation research — work by scientists that adds abilities to pathogens, including experiments that focus on SARS and MERS, the coronavirus cousins of the COVID-19 agent.

    If we are to avoid another influenza pandemic, we will need to understand the kinds of flu viruses that could cause it. Gain-of-function mutation research can help us with that, says Fouchier, by telling us what kind of mutations might allow a virus to jump across species or evolve into more virulent strains. It could help us prepare and, in doing so, save lives.

    Many of his scientific peers, however, disagree; they say his experiments are not worth the risks they pose to society.

    A virus and a firestorm

    The Dutch virologist, based at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, caused a firestorm of controversy about a decade ago, when he and Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that they had successfully mutated H5N1, a strain of bird flu, to pass through the air between ferrets, in two separate experiments. Ferrets are considered the best flu models because their respiratory systems react to the flu much like humans.

    The mutations that gave the virus its ability to be airborne transmissible are gain-of-function (GOF) mutations. GOF research is when scientists purposefully cause mutations that give viruses new abilities in an attempt to better understand the pathogen. In Fouchier's experiments, they wanted to see if it could be made airborne transmissible so that they could catch potentially dangerous strains early and develop new treatments and vaccines ahead of time.

    The problem is: their mutated H5N1 could also cause a pandemic if it ever left the lab. In Science magazine, Fouchier himself called it "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make."

    Just three special traits

    Recreated 1918 influenza virionsCredit: Cynthia Goldsmith / CDC / Dr. Terrence Tumpey / Public domain via Wikipedia

    For H5N1, Fouchier identified five mutations that could cause three special traits needed to trigger an avian flu to become airborne in mammals. Those traits are (1) the ability to attach to cells of the throat and nose, (2) the ability to survive the colder temperatures found in those places, and (3) the ability to survive in adverse environments.

    A minimum of three mutations may be all that's needed for a virus in the wild to make the leap through the air in mammals. If it does, it could spread. Fast.

    Fouchier calculates the odds of this happening to be fairly low, for any given virus. Each mutation has the potential to cripple the virus on its own. They need to be perfectly aligned for the flu to jump. But these mutations can — and do — happen.

    "In 2013, a new virus popped up in China," says Fouchier. "H7N9."

    H7N9 is another kind of avian flu, like H5N1. The CDC considers it the most likely flu strain to cause a pandemic. In the human outbreaks that occurred between 2013 and 2015, it killed a staggering 39% of known cases; if H7N9 were to have all five of the gain-of-function mutations Fouchier had identified in his work with H5N1, it could make COVID-19 look like a kitten in comparison.

    H7N9 had three of those mutations in 2013.

    Gain-of-function mutation: creating our fears to (possibly) prevent them

    Flu viruses are basically eight pieces of RNA wrapped up in a ball. To create the gain-of-function mutations, the research used a DNA template for each piece, called a plasmid. Making a single mutation in the plasmid is easy, Fouchier says, and it's commonly done in genetics labs.

    If you insert all eight plasmids into a mammalian cell, they hijack the cell's machinery to create flu virus RNA.

    "Now you can start to assemble a new virus particle in that cell," Fouchier says.

    One infected cell is enough to grow many new virus particles — from one to a thousand to a million; viruses are replication machines. And because they mutate so readily during their replication, the new viruses have to be checked to make sure it only has the mutations the lab caused.

    The virus then goes into the ferrets, passing through them to generate new viruses until, on the 10th generation, it infected ferrets through the air. By analyzing the virus's genes in each generation, they can figure out what exact five mutations lead to H5N1 bird flu being airborne between ferrets.

    And, potentially, people.

    "This work should never have been done"

    The potential for the modified H5N1 strain to cause a human pandemic if it ever slipped out of containment has sparked sharp criticism and no shortage of controversy. Rutgers molecular biologist Richard Ebright summed up the far end of the opposition when he told Science that the research "should never have been done."

    "When I first heard about the experiments that make highly pathogenic avian influenza transmissible," says Philip Dormitzer, vice president and chief scientific officer of viral vaccines at Pfizer, "I was interested in the science but concerned about the risks of both the viruses themselves and of the consequences of the reaction to the experiments."

    In 2014, in response to researchers' fears and some lab incidents, the federal government imposed a moratorium on all GOF research, freezing the work.

    Some scientists believe gain-of-function mutation experiments could be extremely valuable in understanding the potential risks we face from wild influenza strains, but only if they are done right. Dormitzer says that a careful and thoughtful examination of the issue could lead to processes that make gain-of-function mutation research with viruses safer.

    But in the meantime, the moratorium stifled some research into influenzas — and coronaviruses.

    The National Academy of Science whipped up some new guidelines, and in December of 2017, the call went out: GOF studies could apply to be funded again. A panel formed by Health and Human Services (HHS) would review applications and make the decision of which studies to fund.

    As of right now, only Kawaoka and Fouchier's studies have been approved, getting the green light last winter. They are resuming where they left off.

    Pandora's locks: how to contain gain-of-function flu

    Here's the thing: the work is indeed potentially dangerous. But there are layers upon layers of safety measures at both Fouchier's and Kawaoka's labs.

    "You really need to think about it like an onion," says Rebecca Moritz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Moritz is the select agent responsible for Kawaoka's lab. Her job is to ensure that all safety standards are met and that protocols are created and drilled; basically, she's there to prevent viruses from escaping. And this virus has some extra-special considerations.

    The specific H5N1 strain Kawaoka's lab uses is on a list called the Federal Select Agent Program. Pathogens on this list need to meet special safety considerations. The GOF experiments have even more stringent guidelines because the research is deemed "dual-use research of concern."

    There was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

    "Dual-use research of concern is legitimate research that could potentially be used for nefarious purposes," Moritz says. At one time, there was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

    While the insights they found would help scientists, they could also be used to create bioweapons. The papers had to pass through a review by the U.S. National Science Board for Biosecurity, but they were eventually published.

    Intentional biowarfare and terrorism aside, the gain-of-function mutation flu must be contained even from accidents. At Wisconsin, that begins with the building itself. The labs are specially designed to be able to contain pathogens (BSL-3 agricultural, for you Inside Baseball types).

    They are essentially an airtight cement bunker, negatively pressurized so that air will only flow into the lab in case of any breach — keeping the viruses pushed in. And all air in and out of the lap passes through multiple HEPA filters.

    Inside the lab, researchers wear special protective equipment, including respirators. Anyone coming or going into the lab must go through an intricate dance involving stripping and putting on various articles of clothing and passing through showers and decontamination.

    And the most dangerous parts of the experiment are performed inside primary containment. For example, a biocontainment cabinet, which acts like an extra high-security box, inside the already highly-secure lab (kind of like the radiation glove box Homer Simpson is working in during the opening credits).

    "Many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely." — REBECCA MORITZ

    The Federal Select Agent program can come and inspect you at any time with no warning, Moritz says. At the bare minimum, the whole thing gets shaken down every three years.

    There are numerous potential dangers — a vial of virus gets dropped; a needle prick; a ferret bite — but Moritz is confident that the safety measures and guidelines will prevent any catastrophe.

    "The institution and many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely," Moritz says.

    No human harm has come of the work yet, but the potential for it is real.

    "Nature will continue to do this"

    They were dead on the beaches.

    In the spring of 2014, another type of bird flu, H10N7, swept through the harbor seal population of northern Europe. Starting in Sweden, the virus moved south and west, across Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. It is estimated that 10% of the entire seal population was killed.

    The virus's evolution could be tracked through time and space, Fouchier says, as it progressed down the coast. Natural selection pushed through gain-of-function mutations in the seals, similarly to how H5N1 evolved to better jump between ferrets in his lab — his lab which, at the time, was shuttered.

    "We did our work in the lab," Fouchier says, with a high level of safety and security. "But the same thing was happening on the beach here in the Netherlands. And so you can tell me to stop doing this research, but nature will continue to do this day in, day out."

    Critics argue that the knowledge gained from the experiments is either non-existent or not worth the risk; Fouchier argues that GOF experiments are the only way to learn crucial information on what makes a flu virus a pandemic candidate.

    "If these three traits could be caused by hundreds of combinations of five mutations, then that increases the risk of these things happening in nature immensely," Fouchier says.

    "With something as crucial as flu, we need to investigate everything that we can," Fouchier says, hoping to find "a new Achilles' heel of the flu that we can use to stop the impact of it."

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