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How can journalists and data scientists best shape the debate about a data-driven society? This question is central to a new research project by the Fontys Hogeschool Journalistiek (FHJ) in Tilburg and Fontys Hogeschool ICT (FHICT) in Eindhoven.

By bringing together different disciplines, the research group hopes to discover what education can offer society. The group, which is united under the slogan ‘smart louse in digital fur‘, includes Daniëlle Arets, FHJ innovation lecturer, Gerard Schouten, FHICT big data lecturer, and philosopher Leon Heuts.

Within the research group, there is the idea that the ethical issues in the development towards a data-driven society are insufficiently addressed and too often fall into black-and-white thinking. “We have to look for much more nuance in this story”, says Arets. By studying how the debate is currently being conducted, it should become clear where the opportunities lie. The ambition is to make journalism students and aspiring data scientists more digital and ethical savvy by offering them both a theoretical framework and practical tools. Arets talks about ‘creating a new journalistic blood group’. “I think it would be nice if Fontys were to lead that development”, she adds.

Schouten also emphasises the added value of ICT training. “We now make software that makes decisions, but doesn’t care about ethics.” Schouten also states that we are at a turning point. “The limitations of a purely data-driven approach are becoming increasingly clear and we are reaching a limit there. From a social perspective, there is an increasing need for a new generation of predictive models based on causality principles. In short: models that are explainable, transparent, fair and even socially-aware.” The lecturer is pleased with the multidisciplinary approach of the project. “Because surprising combinations often result in surprising breakthroughs.”

The research consists of three case studies. First, the collaboration between the municipality of Tilburg and Huawei, which together develop a smart city policy, is examined. The Stratumseind (living lab) in Eindhoven is also being examined. Finally, attention will be focused on the Brandevoort district in Helmond, which will be enlarged as Brainport smart district. In exchange for giving up personal data, residents can get a discount on the rent in this neighbourhood.

The research is part of TEC for Society, a new strategy launched by Fontys at the beginning of this year. TEC stands for Technology, Entrepreneurship and Creativity; with this initiative, the educational institute hopes to respond to the growing social demand for more enterprising and curious students and professionals. The focus of this research is now on ICT and journalism students, but at a later stage, it could be extended to Fontys students in general.