Data For Equity: A Raw Discussion About Data’s Role in Social Justice

September 30, 2017
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Data for Equity: The Power of Data to Promote Justice brought together students and professionals to discuss the mixed effects of civic analytics on communities on color, especially in the criminal justice system."No technology is neutral,” quipped moderator Yeshimabeit Milner during her opening statement, setting the stage for a frank discussion of the racial politics of data and technology in the public sector. Milner is the Executive Director of Data For Black Lives, an organization which uses “data science to create concrete and measurable change in the lives of Black people.”

Milner was joined by panelists William Isaac of the Open Society Foundation and the Human Rights Data Analysis Group; Kelly Jin, Director of Data-Driven Justice at the Arnold Foundation; Paola Villareal, Harvard University Fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and former Data Science Fellow at the ACLU; and Carlos Rojas, a consultant at Youth on Board and founding member of the Boston Education justice Alliance. Together, the panelists represented a diverse cross-section of the movement for justice-driven data in the Boston area and across the country.

The night began with a 90-minute panel discussion. Ms. Milner’s provocative introduction prompted the panelists to speak about tensions within the data community over justice issues. All panel members stressed the importance of holding organizations accountable for using data responsibly. Several told stories of law enforcement agencies misusing Predictive Policing, an analytical tool used to mathematically identify to prevent crime. Law enforcement officials have admitted that they implement the data programs blindly, without guidance on how to use data effectively and without bias. “Even if you have the tools, if the institutions aren’t changing, if you can’t hold them accountable, we won’t have the [results] that we want,” Mr. Isaac explained.

Not only is data often implemented poorly, data itself can reflect the same biases as those who contribute to it. Mr. Rojas stressed that problems associated with data and bias in the justice system start from the ground up. “The problem that every person on this panel is trying to tackle seems to begin in our school system,” he said. Collecting data on suspensions and expulsions isn’t enough to combat the school to prison pipeline: Mr. Rojas highlighted how some school districts use covert names like “early dismissal” to conceal disciplinary measures that would otherwise appear in studies of biased discipline. Ms. Villareal spoke of the dangers of the “tech-savior” complex and the importance of cross-sector collaboration in order to optimize the impact data has in a community. Data “for data’s sake” is ineffective, Ms. Jin agreed, “Data should be grounded in questions.”

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An audience member poses a question to the panel of experts at Data for Equity: The Power of Data to Promote Justice.

Such an honest discussion of the short-comings of data is uncommon—it can be difficult to voice criticism from the inside without being seen as “anti-data.” “There are people who truly believe data is great, it’s going to solve all our problems,” Mr. Isaac said, “And they say ‘If you say anything bad about data it’s all going to go away.’” At the other side of the spectrum are those who don’t value data at all, despite its proven efficacy. Those present for the discussion were dedicated to finding a middle ground.

Data for Equity: The Power of Data to Promote Justice was the first of three scheduled events at Harvard and MIT featuring Data For Black Lives. From November 17-19, 2017, MIT will host the inaugural Data for Black Lives Conference for community members and organizers, academics and technologists, educators, artists, policy makers, and public servants to engage the most pressing racial justice issues and explore opportunities for future research and practice through real-time problem-solving and brainstorming. Harvard Kennedy School will host the 14th annual Black Policy Conference from April 6-8, 2018. The Black Policy Conference is the leading policy driven forum to address the issues affecting Black communities. The conference provides an opportunity for the convergence of the world’s greatest minds and practitioners with the hope and intent of finding sustainable solutions for issues facing Black communities.

November 17-19, 2017: Data for Black Lives Inaugural Conference at MIT
April 6-8, 2018: Black Policy Conference at Harvard Kennedy School

Data for Equity: The Power of Data to Promote Justice was part of the Center for Public Leadership’s Technology in the Public Sector events series and was cosponsored by Data for Black Lives, the HKS Black Policy Conference, the HKS Black Student Union, and the CPL Social Innovation + Change Initiative.

See also: In the News