AI on the Ground

The AI on the Ground Initiative at Data & Society focuses on the development, use, and assessment of AI by the people who shape new AI systems and policies. Centering social science research, our goal is to develop robust analyses of AI systems that can effectively inform design, use, and governance.

To realize AI’s social benefits, it is necessary to understand its risks and potential harms to people, communities, and institutions through empirically grounded research rather than speculation. We argue that the impact of AI systems and policies can only be fully understood by observing, listening, and speaking with people on the ground–from government and business leaders, to scientists and engineers, to community activists and vulnerable groups.

Our ethnographically-oriented research explores new processes of integrating and governing AI within diverse social contexts; including medical, governmental, and humanitarian sectors, among others. We seek to complement critical analyses with pragmatic governance and design approaches that speak to multiple stakeholders.

To this end, we are focused not only on articulating emerging issues but also on developing guidelines, best practices, and recommendations for regulatory approaches. We will examine effective ethical, human rights, regulatory, and other governance frameworks to help policymakers and ethics bodies better understand what they should demand of AI development, procurement, and assessment processes. With a sociotechnical foundation of understanding, society will be better equipped to plan for and govern beneficial and human-centered AI.

Research Tracks


Frameworks of accountability

Evaluating and developing new ways to hold creators and users of AI and algorithmic systems accountable in practice across varied contexts, including business and consumer technologies, governmental use of AI, and "AI for good."


Social Dynamics of Integration

Researching how organizations and cultures change when AI systems are introduced, with a focus on ethical practices and local reconfigurations of power and responsibility.


Narratives and discourse

Tracking and reframing popular rhetoric and discourse around what AI is, how it is used, and why, with the goal of advancing public understanding of AI's emerging role in society.

When Humans Attack

05.14.19 | points | Madeleine Clare Elish, Elizabeth Watkins

As AI becomes integrated into our everyday lives, how might it be gamed by humans, and how should we reconceptualize our notions of security? “It is imperative to leverage...

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Accountable Algorithmic Futures

04.19.19 | points | Andrew Selbst, Madeleine Clare Elish, Mark Latonero

The Algorithmic Accountability Act is a great first step, and regulators who are tasked with implementing it should take sociotechnical frames into account. “A sociological lens can help illuminate...

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Don’t Believe Every AI You See

11.26.18 | New America | Madeleine Clare Elish, danah boyd

Data & Society Founder and President danah boyd and Researcher Madeleine Clare Elish lay the groundwork for questioning AI and ethics. “Without comprehensively accounting for the strengths and weaknesses...

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Artificial Intelligence & Human Rights: A Workshop at Data & Society

05.11.18 | points | Mark Latonero, Melanie Penagos

On April 26-27, Data & Society hosted a multidisciplinary workshop on AI and Human Rights. In this Points piece, Data + Human Rights Research Lead Mark Latonero and Research...

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Don’t Call AI “Magic”

01.17.18 | points | Madeleine Clare Elish

Artificial intelligence is increasingly being used across multiple sectors and people often refer to its function as “magic.” In this blogpost, D&S researcher Madeleine Clare Elish points out how...

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The future of designing autonomous systems will involve ethnographers

06.28.16 | | Madeleine Clare Elish

D&S researcher Madeleine Clare Elish asserts ethnography and anthropology’s role in studying automation and intelligent systems. Cultural perceptions of the role of humans in automated and robotic systems need...

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AI in Context

01.30.19 | report | Alexandra Mateescu, Madeleine Clare Elish

“AI in Context” shows how automated and AI technologies are reconfiguring work in small family-owned farms and grocery stores.  

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Governing Artificial Intelligence

10.10.18 | report | Mark Latonero

In Governing Artificial Intelligence: Upholding Human Rights & Dignity, Mark Latonero shows how human rights can serve as a “North Star” to guide the development and governance of artificial...

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Research Team

Madeleine Clare Elish


Mark Latonero


Alexandra Mateescu


Andrew Selbst


Elizabeth Anne Watkins


Emanuel Moss


Jacob Metcalf


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