Academics and Activists Unite to Tackle Digital Discrimination

March 5, 2019

On Friday, March 8, at 9:30 a.m. in Donald Bren Hall 2011, Yeshimabet Milner, founder of Data for Black Lives, will be giving a talk, “Abolish Big Data.” The talk, which is open to the public, kicks off a two-day workshop, “Datafication and Community Activism: Redrawing the Boundaries of Research,” hosted by Informatics Professor Roderic Crooks in collaboration with Milner. The rest of the workshop, by invitation only, will bring together a diverse group of activists and academics.

“I hope this workshop starts a conversation,” says Crooks, “where communities that have frequently been poorly served by data-intensive technologies get a chance to express their concerns, and researchers get a chance to hear them.”

Seeking Out Community Input
Troves of new data are produced daily, influencing the world around us. This “datafication” of our society — in which more and more parts of our public and private lives are mediated by data — is new, but age-old problems persist. As Crooks explains, “technology is another space where we again have to revisit questions of civil rights, questions of abolition, questions of discrimination.”

Cases of algorithmic bias occur in everything from job advertisements to credit scores, and Crooks knows that to address these issues and find ways to “design ethically,” input from marginalized communities is needed. “But who,” he asks, “speaks for the community?”

In an attempt to move beyond typical forms of input, such as focus groups or surveys, Crooks found that “one way communities speak is through activism.” Local activists, especially those focused on digital discrimination, are well-versed in how technology influences their communities. “Many activists dispute the ‘novelty of innovation’ talk,” says Crooks. “They would just say ‘well, this is old wine in a new bottle.’” Digital redlining is just one example.

So when Crooks approached Milner with the idea of hosting a workshop for activists and academics, she got excited. “It made so much sense,” she says. “A big part of the mission of Data for Black Lives is to use the datafication of our society to make bold demands for racial justice, to use the technological advances at our disposal to make amends for the past and to chart out a new future.”

Connecting Academics and Activists
In her talk, Milner will discuss a framework she introduced at the 2019 Data for Black Lives conference in January. She explains that “from fingerprints, facial recognition and background checks, to gang databases, FBI lists, social media surveillance and credit scores: data has always been central to the expansion of the prison industrial complex, the immigration enforcement industry, and the financialization of our economy.” Her work aims to alter the power dynamic and use data to make positive changes in the lives of marginalized people. “It’s time we use technology in service of a much grander and more just vision.”

Supporting Milner in her quest for change is the Data for Black Lives network of more than 4,000 scientists and activists. She argues that “isolation between scientists and directly impacted communities” is part of the reason “why these biases go unchecked and inequality is reinforced.”

Crooks agrees. He realizes that speaking with activists is not the only way for researchers to connect with impacted communities, but it’s a good place to start in bridging the gap. Many minoritized communities have been poorly served by academia, resulting in a lingering mistrust. “Where does a thing like an algorithmic system that reads resumes come from? It comes from the research community, partly,” he admits.

Roderic Crooks

“We imagine that data is objective and scientific, but when data practices and data technologies leave the domain of science and technology, they do not necessarily avoid politics,” he explains. “How do you use a tool that was developed to find patterns in large sets of data in the natural sciences and then adapt it for industry?” he asks. “What does that do when you try to use it for schools?” Crooks needs community input to address these issues; at the same time, activists fighting algorithmic forms of discrimination need data scientists. “It’s a mistake to think of this as an antagonism,” he says. “I think of it as a space where we can make new knowledge or address persistent questions in a new way.”

Building New Coalitions
It seems Crooks and Milner are not alone in their desire for greater coordination. According to informatics Ph.D. student Benedict Olgado, who is helping organize the event, response to the workshop was overwhelming. “Professor Crooks was initially planning to have a small working group of 15-20 people, but we are now looking at bringing together 50 participants, representing various communities and coming from diverse backgrounds.”

In attendance will be activists from the Bronx Defenders, Measure Austin, Our Data Bodies and Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, as well as researchers from the Center for Internet and Society (India), Data & Society and the Urban Institute. From the scholarly community, the participants are mostly those interested in critical data studies, representing more than 20 universities, including UC and California State University schools, Harvard, MIT and Georgia Tech.

“The forum brings together scholars, graduate students, artists, para-academics, public scholars, community activists, and data/information professionals interested in thinking through the relationship between activism and research,” says Olgado. “The goal of the two-day workshop will be to identify an actionable research agenda that will support the interests of minoritized communities and to build an intellectual network to support this work.”

Milner can attest to the power of collaboration. For example, she credits a coalition of organizers, educators and activists in St. Paul Minnesota in fighting a data-sharing agreement between the school district, local sheriff’s office and child welfare agencies. The agreement created “risk ratios” for at-risk students, “what the coalition aptly named the ‘cradle to prison’ algorithm,” she says. Thanks to their efforts, it was recently announced that the agreement would be dissolved.

The workshop could help create more of these types of coalitions, focused not only on limiting discrimination but also, notes Crooks, looking at “what kinds of data collection and use are emancipatory and support human flourishing.” He’s not sure they will find the answers, but he’s cautiously optimistic. “It feels risky to me,” he admits, referring to the workshop. “This is not normally how you do research.” And while he can’t guarantee this will “produce improved and more equitable technology,” he says it’s “definitely worth investigating.”

Milner has faith that such investigations will lead to positive outcomes. “In the right hands, I firmly believe in the potential of data to shift power and make concrete and measurable change in the lives of Black people and of all people.”

Shani Murray