20 January 2015

With Great Technology Comes Great Responsibility

Posted by Chris McEntee

RFID, or radio frequency identification, isn’t something most of us talk about in everyday conversation, but in many ways, this technology has become a regular part of our lives (though we often don’t see it). It’s in the books we check out of the library, the systems used to restock shelves at our grocery store, the passes that allow us to pay a toll on the highway without stopping, and the badges we use to swipe in and out of our offices.

In a world where maintaining the privacy and security of our personal information is becoming a complex challenge, the idea that others are collecting data about us is understandably concerning. That’s why I want to apologize for how AGU implemented and communicated a recent experiment with RFID at the 2014 Fall Meeting.

For those of you who are not already aware, here are the facts about AGU’s use of RFID at the Fall Meeting: The program was piloted in a small number of high traffic areas, including the exhibit and South poster halls, the Honors Ceremony, and in the large general session lecture hall (where named and union lectures occurred) of the Moscone Center. This was done to get an accurate count of attendance and to better gauge attendee participation. The sensors only counted people entering and exiting those spaces; they did not track an individual’s movements within a room, nor did they track movements outside of the designated areas within the Moscone Center.

While the data collected included name, institution, geographic location of the institution, and member type (such as student, associate member, regular member), no individual data will be used for any purpose or shared with any outside organization. In fact, AGU is only looking at aggregate data for all participants and breakdowns by broad demographics for these events. For example, we planned to compare the aggregate of students vs. regular registrants or international vs. domestic attendees, to help us understand the dynamics of large groups of people, as well as space needs and patterns of participation.

Screen shot of the registration page for the 2014 Fall Meeting that highlights the placement of language about the implementation of a pilot RFID program

Screen shot of 2014 Fall Meeting registration webpage, including announcement about RFID program at the bottom of the page. Click the image to view full screen.

First and foremost, I want to apologize for the completely understandable privacy concerns our experimentation with this technology raised with some of our attendees. Clearly, the announcements we made during the registration process and on the Fall Meeting website about this program and how attendees could opt out were not sufficient. We could have and should have done better, and I can promise you that the lessons learned will be incorporated into our decision making processes – for all new technology implementations – moving forward.

Our initial decision to use RFID, as well as several other technology improvements, stemmed from a recent review that was done for AGU’s entire meetings program (something we do regularly, not just with meetings, but with all AGU programs). Having good data can significantly improve meeting planning, and many organizations that present large conferences use RFID technology to assist with their efforts. For AGU, having accurate attendance counts and understanding the types of members attending our events can help us to better plan for things like room sizes and refreshments. Getting accurate counts has been challenging for us in the past because it has been done through the use of manual clickers or visual counts, which is not efficient or effective.

However, we should have anticipated that this experiment would raise questions and concerns, and we certainly should have implemented it with more care, including communicating the facts in a highly visible way to ensure that all meeting registrants had the opportunity to easily make an informed choice. In the coming months we will be evaluating if there was any value in gathering this data, and the AGU Board and Council are already discussing whether and/or how to move forward with such a program in the future, and under what conditions we might do so. This includes chartering a task force to work with staff to consider how technology in this digital era is being deployed and used and to review and recommend updates to AGU’s privacy policy, which was last codified in 2002. We will update you regularly as that group’s work progresses.

Because we heard concerns from some meeting attendees, I want to let you know that individuals who are uncomfortable having their information included in the data set can request that it be removed. Just send an email to service@agu.org and we will delete your record. Also, I want you to know that we recognize that member feedback should inform our decisions, so if you have any further thoughts on how we should could or should use this technology (and others), or how we should communicate about these issues, I welcome them.  We will host a question and answer session for AGU members via conference call on Thursday, 29 January at 2 p.m. EST. If you are interested in participating in this session, we ask that you register by sending an email to service@agu.org – only so that we can send you information on how to participate and ensure that the technology will support the number of participants.

Of course, if you are unable to attend that session, you are welcome to send your thoughts to us via an email to service@agu.org or through the comments section below.

Please know that we regret our poor execution and communication of the RFID experiment and we look forward to working with you to develop a path forward with which we can all be comfortable.