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Robyn Caplan joined Sanford this fall as an assistant professor. She is also a Senior Lecturing Fellow in the Initiative for Science & Society at Duke; a Researcher Affiliate at the Data & Society Research Institute, where she worked as a Senior Researcher; an Affiliate at the Center for Information Technology and Policy at UNC-Chapel Hill, and a founding member of the Platform Governance Research Network.

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Robyn Caplan

But in 2009, she was a new graduate in need of a job. It turned out that Caplan, holding a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Toronto, arrived in New York City at a key moment: the financial crisis and the dawn of digital media. She spent the following years working for digital media companies (including Gawker and America Online, among others) while pursuing more education.

“I was coming of age at an interesting time with a lot of constraints, so I took as many opportunities and learned as many skills as I could, and it worked out well,” she said recently. “Most of my psychology courses were cognitive science, so I was primed to think about AI, how we parse and create categories for data, and the relationship between tech and society.”

Media, Culture and Communications

Caplan originally thought she would study the history of psychology at the graduate level. But at New York University, she got to know Professor Ted Magder. She was his teaching assistant for a business and media course and took his global media policy course. Among the issues bubbling up at the time were Wikileaks (pre-Julian Assange), issues around cloud computing and storage, and “boundary issues that were happening in journalism and blogging and whistleblowing, and what shield laws would and wouldn’t protect,” she said.

Magder told her she had a knack for synthesizing all of this and advised her to forget the history of psychology. She earned her master’s in media, culture, and communication from NYU in 2012.

Caplan then saw a need to integrate this work into a policy space. She joined the Governance Lab at NYU and began researching issues around open data – how governments were trying to use open data to develop inter-agency lines of communication as well as between agencies and the public. That led to an interest in open data and a job at Data & Society, an independent nonprofit research organization.

“I looked at how organizational dynamics impact open data programs,” Caplan said. For example, “What are the differences in the types of data produced by a city that employs a chief information officer versus a city that doesn’t have that infrastructure?” She had intended that work to be her dissertation for her Ph.D. at Rutgers University. But then Data & Society received a grant to study who controls the public sphere in an era of algorithms. “This seems kind of crazy now because work in this field these days has now pivoted to the impact of social media, but it didn’t at the time. At the time, I was the only person at Data & Society with a media studies background and the only person there who had ever worked in digital media.” She was appointed to lead the research on that grant.

“I said to myself, this is too messy of an issue. I will never make this my entire focus because I am not certain there are any right answers here. And lo and behold, my entire life changed with that grant.”

Sanford Courses

Caplan is teaching the Policy Journalism and Media Studies Capstone course this semester. She said she looks forward to learning from students who grew up using social media platforms and who aren’t old enough to remember a world without them.

Caplan, a “not-so-secret Canadian” and former rhythmic gymnast, moved to Durham this summer. She said she is thrilled to be at Duke. Her career thus far has brought connections in her field of tech policy, but she is looking forward to widening those connections and working with her new colleagues. “What I love about Duke, and what I love about the School of Public Policy, is that there are so many people working outside of my specific field,” she said. “That presents an amazing opportunity to collaborate across economics and political science and whoever will have me.”

What I love about Duke, and what I love about the School of Public Policy, is that there are so many people working outside of my specific field. That presents an amazing opportunity to collaborate across economics and political science and whoever will have me.

Robyn Caplan