Using data to create a more fair and equitable society

Data is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.* Data doesn’t speak for itself. It must be analyzed and interpreted, and the practice of making meaning from data is where opportunities and challenges lie. Data can be used to advance numerous goals and values, ranging from the mundane to the significant. Businesses can use data to drive economic imperatives, both socially beneficial and morally bankrupt. News media can use data to create informed citizenry or to manipulate people. Governments can use data to improve governance or to centralize control. People can use data to empower themselves and their communities or to reify injustices and inequalities. There is so much potential present in the availability of data, but transparency is not enough. For data’s potential to be realized, we must not simply think about the data itself but about all of the processes and practices – and power – around the data.

Data & Society is pleased to collaborate with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to ask: How might we make data work for individuals and communities? This question forms the basis of the current Knight News Challenge, an open call for ideas. As with previous Knight News Challenges, the Foundation is offering significant funding to researchers and teams – anyone, anywhere – with great ideas that can make a difference.

How might we make data work for individuals and communities?
Visit newschallenge.org starting September 8 to submit your ideas.

As a collaborator, what Data & Society is hoping to uncover and offer support for are projects dedicated to addressing inequities in society. How can data be used to combat discrimination and injustice? How can marginalized communities be part of data-related interventions that are about them? How can data be leveraged to ask hard questions about the status quo?

All around us, we are seeing phenomenal disruptions emerge in conjunction with data-driven technologies. New technologies are reconfiguring labor and criminal justice, education and human rights, governance and news. The number of hard questions raised by these shifts exceeds the availability of resources to address them. And there’s a growing tension between those seeking to disrupt and then ask questions versus those who want answers first. Change can be messy, and balancing the potential costs and benefits can be tricky.

At Data & Society, we believe that the key to finding that balance is always to remember both data and society. This requires a conscientious commitment to staying grounded in people’s experiences and realities while leveraging technology to create change. It requires attention to externalities and a willingness to shift approaches when a great idea backfires or has harmful repercussions. It requires collaboration and reflection, as well as a recognition that there’s more than one bottom line. The value of data-driven technologies shouldn’t simply be measured in economic or disruptive potential. We need to account for the value to society from the get-go.

Many of the people reading this call live in a world where we have easy access to technology and data, where we are happy to contribute data to services because we personally benefit, and where we can imagine using data for good. Yet, for many people in the world, data isn’t something that’s shared by choice; it’s something that’s at best a trade-off and, all too often, the outcome of a coercive or surveillance-based situation. If we want to create a world where data can be used in empowering ways, we need to take seriously the experiences of those for whom data doesn’t feel so awesome. At Data & Society, we feel as though it’s important to always keep these perspectives in our mind’s eye.

We know that there are brilliant minds out there working diligently to make the world a better place. We also know that there is so much potential for harnessing data to address some of the most complex challenges of our time. What we’re hoping is that makers and researchers, advocates and practitioners will see this call and propose ideas that can enable people and communities to use data to create a more fair and equitable society.

We’re hosting an information session in New York, at Civic Hall, on Tuesday, September 8. Staff from Knight Foundation will be available to answer questions, and danah boyd will speak briefly about Data & Society’s vision for the challenge. Please join us! Register here.

* Melvin Kranzberg, known for his study of technological systems, famously argued that, “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” The same applies to data.