The Specter of “Preemptive Government”

Last week, reporter Alex Howard published an interview on O’Reilly’s Strata blog that discusses a new use of Big Data in the form of “preemptive government.” This concept refers to emerging technologies that are able to sift through large, heterogeneous datasets and make predictive judgements about everything from crime to building or business code violations.

The phrase “preemptive government” itself sounds like it was torn from the pages of a Philip K. Dick story, with government agents targeting potential violators of the law before any violation occurs. In the piece, former Indianapolis mayor (and former New York City deputy mayor) Stephen Goldsmith acknowledges that the concept raises some very thorny ethical questions, particularly around disproportionate police attention and profiling. Issues around data collection, retention and usage all bear on how such preemptive governance would be conducted. From a conceptual standpoint, preemptive governance could be construed as a new form of surreptitious surveillance.

But it could be a two-way street. As Goldsmith acknowledges, inasmuch as preemptive governance relies on crowdsourced forms of data production, it can enable citizens to participate in the ways their environments are governed. Much like how participatory Geographic Information Systems (PGIS) to some degree enabled citizens to use technologies to influence urban administration, crowdsourcing data production opens new connections between citizens and their government. Also, like PGIS, this process is likely to be fraught with social and political challenges that bear exploring, in particular how marginalized communities are impacted.

Research is needed to understand whether Big Data, crowdsourcing, and, perhaps, preemptive government can increase government efficiency, and how this impacts different social groups. Are some people marginalized by these processes? Are others given a greater voice in governance? What kinds of problems can these processes address?

In the meantime, policymakers could look to these technologies as ways to improve operations and to increase transparency, while figuring out how to navigate legal and social frameworks of privacy and confidentiality. In an ideal world, these technologies can be leveraged to empower everyday people to positively influence the ways they are governed.

About the author

Ryan Burns, PhC, is a doctoral candidate in geography at University of Washington-Seattle. He is currently serving as a research assistant with the Commons Lab of the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is studying the social and political implications of geographic technologies, particularly the ways new mapping and social media technologies are being integrated into disaster management strategies.

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