Can we democratize data?

IMG_6329Last week, the Bernstein Institute at New York University held a powerful meeting of activists and thinkers about data, algorithms and resistance. We met in the classically elegant Vanderbilt Hall, under the watchful gaze of the portraits of past NYU presidents, but the emphasis was squarely on activism: how communities can resist top-down algorithmic control, and reclaim a space for democratic decision-making.

Some speakers had reports that were starkly Orwellian. Big Brother is here already, but in many countries, he’s specifically just watching people of color, trans and queer people, migrants and poor people – through predictive policing and other algorithmic forms of control and domination. For some affected communities, democratizing data is already a matter of survival.

Fieke Jansen spoke about predictive policing of children ages 8 to 12 in Amsterdam, while similarly, Stop LAPD Spying showed how intrusive data is used to police and control people of color and unhoused people in rapidly gentrifying areas of Los Angeles. I spoke about how cost-effectiveness software used to prioritize where health aid goes may unintentionally reinforce historical discrimination.

Sharon Hom had the grimmest story of all of us: an overview to how Chinese state surveillance is used to track and imprison ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang. She also warned that when it comes to technologies of state surveillance, “What happens in China does not stay in China.” Bob Bernstein, the institute’s founder and legendary publisher, was also a founder of Human Rights Watch and Human Rights in China. (Coincidentally, ASPI has launched an interactive map of the leading Chinese tech companies, which makes their global growth easier to see).

But activists and scholars also shared some inspiring resistance tactics. Our Data Bodies, a project of allied community organizations in three US cities, has produced tools to educate and empower communities on data, discrimination and injustice. Peter Njane spoke about effective resistance by key populations in Kenya to use of biometric data-gathering for HIV surveys, and John Waters spoke about his work at Caribbean Vulnerable Communities doing participatory action research on key populations (a study I’ve been observing in action as an ethnographer).

Other activists are reversing the lens: AI Now Institute shared their Algorithmic Accountability Policy Toolkit, and the Legal Aid Society walked us through their interactive site which maps reported police misconduct cases. In New Zealand, Maori people have mobilized to create their own indicators and data, so that they can tell government officials counter narratives that show their community’s strengths and contributions to the national economy.

Lots more on Twitter under #democratizedata. The full two days of the meeting were recorded and are watchable online:


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