Data & Fairness

Recognizing increasing concerns over how data may be used to enable or violate civil rights, Data & Society is working to identify emergent issues and provide research that may help inform the discussions that are underway. Data & Society is working with civil rights groups, technologists, and researchers to identify issues where new technologies enable or complicate conversations around equity, inequality, and fairness. The goal of this project is to bridge technical and social conversations and provide information that may be helpful in sparking thoughtful conversations and enabling productive interventions.

This initiative builds on the amazing work of civil rights leaders to help imagine a set of “Civil Rights Principles for the Era of ‘Big Data’” and the efforts of the White House to raise civil rights concerns as part of their review of big data. In March 2014, Data & Society hosted a conference as part of the White House’s review process. “The Social, Cultural & Ethical Dimensions of ‘Big Data’” focused heavily on questions of inequity, unintended consequences, and discrimination. (Primers and workshop notes, as well as video of the proceedings, can be accessed here.) Questions raised at that event helped fuel the development of this initiative, which benefits from ongoing collaboration with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, New America’s Open Technology Institute, and Upturn.

Data & Civil Rights Conference

On October 30, 2014, Data & Society, the Leadership Conference, and New America teamed up to host the first Data & Civil Rights Conference to identify and discuss opportunities and challenges presented by “big data” in the realm of civil rights. This conference focused on examining existing civil rights issues and asking how the availability of data and the practices surrounding data analytics may alter the landscape, both productively and problematically.

To ground discussions at this conference, the team produced research primers on six different areas: criminal justice, education, employment, finance, health, and housing. In addition, the team put together a technology primer to ground the technology discussions. (Primers and workshop writeups, as well as breakout session writeups and video of the proceedings, can be accessed at

Additional partners included the ACLU, the Center for Democracy & Technology, the Center for Media Justice, and Upturn. This event was made possible through the guidance and support of the Ford Foundation with additional funding and support by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Media Democracy Fund, Omidyar Network, and Open Society Foundations.

Police Body-Worn Cameras

Data & Society produced a primer on police body-worn cameras that was released in February 2015.

In the wake of the police shooting of Michael Brown in August 2014, as well as the subsequent protests in Ferguson, Missouri and around the country, there has been a call to mandate the use of body-worn cameras to promote accountability and transparency in police-civilian interactions. Both law enforcement and civil rights advocates are excited by the potential of body-worn cameras to improve community policing and safety, but there is no empirical research to conclusively suggest that these will reduce the deaths of black male civilians in encounters with police. There are some documented milder benefits evident from small pilot studies, such as more polite interactions between police and civilians when both parties are aware they are being recorded, and decreased fraudulent complaints made against officers. Many uncertainties about best practices of body-worn camera adoption and use remain, including when the cameras should record, what should be stored and retained, who should have access to the footage, and what policies should determine the release of footage to the public. As pilot and permanent body-worn camera programs are implemented, the primer asks questions about how they can best be used to achieve their touted goals. How will the implementation of these programs be assessed for their efficacy in achieving accountability goals? What are the best policies to have in place to support those goals?

The Data & Fairness initiative is currently supported by the Ford Foundation.

Journal Articles and Papers

    Surveillance & Society | 08.16.11

    Dreams of Accountability, Guaranteed Surveillance: The Promises and Costs of Body-Worn Cameras

    Alexandra Mateescu, Alex Rosenblat, danah boyd

    Researchers Alexandra Mateescu and Alex Rosenblat published a paper with D&S Founder danah boyd examine police-worn body cameras and their potential to provide avenues for police accountability and foster...
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    paper | 03.10.16

    Hiring by Algorithm

    Ifeoma Ajunwa, Sorelle Friedler, Carlos E Scheidegger, Suresh Venkatasubramanian

    D&S Fellow Sorelle Friedler and D&S Affiliate Ifeoma Ajunwa argue in this essay that well settled legal doctrines that prohibit discrimination against job applicants on the basis of sex...
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    University of Pennsylvania Law Review | 03.02.16

    Accountable Algorithms

    Joshua A. Kroll, Joanna Huey, Solon Barocas, Edward W. Felten, Joel R. Reidenberg, David G. Robinson, and Harlan Yu

    D&S Affiliate Solon Barocas and Advisors Edward W. Felten and Joel Reidenberg collaborate on a paper outlining the importance of algorithmic accountability and fairness, proposing several tools that can...
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    paper | 02.23.16

    Auditing Black-box Models by Obscuring Features

    Philip Adler, Casey Falk, Sorelle A. Friedler, Gabriel Rybeck, Carlos Scheidegger, Brandon Smith, Suresh Venkatasubramanian

    The ubiquity and power of machine learning models in society to determine and control an increasing number of real-world decisions presents a challenge.  D&S fellow Sorelle Friedler and a...
    read more

    paper | 08.13.15

    The Digital CultureSHIFT: From Scale to Power

    Center for Media Justice,, Data & Society

    How the Internet is Shaping Social Change, and Social Change is Shaping the Internet Summary As activism for police accountability, fair wages, just immigration, and more takes center stage...
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    primer | 02.24.15

    Police Body-Worn Cameras – Updated

    Alexandra Mateescu, Alex Rosenblat, danah boyd (with support from Jenna Leventoff and David Robinson)

    In the wake of the police shooting of Michael Brown in August 2014, as well as the subsequent protests in Ferguson, Missouri and around the country, there has been...
    read more

    primer | 10.27.15

    Data & Civil Rights: Open Data, the Criminal Justice System, and the Police Data Initiative

    Robyn Caplan, Alex Rosenblat, danah boyd

    Public calls for data and transparency about police actions have increased in light of widely publicized incidents and patterns of police violence. Opening more data to the public about...
    read more

    primer | 10.27.15

    Data & Civil Rights: Social Media Surveillance and Law Enforcement

    Alexandra Mateescu, Douglas Brunton, Alex Rosenblat, Desmond Patton, Zachary Gold, danah boyd

    According to a 2014 LexisNexis online survey, eighty percent of federal, state, and local law enforcement professionals use social media platforms as an intelligence gathering tool, but most lack...
    read more

    primer | 10.27.15

    Data & Civil Rights: Criminal Justice and Civil Rights Primer

    The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

    New technology has provided an increasingly ubiquitous tool with the potential to build trust between police and the communities they serve and help enhance accountability and transparency in policing...
    read more

    primer | 10.27.15

    Data & Civil Rights: Courts and Predictive Algorithms

    Angèle Christin, Alex Rosenblat, danah boyd

    One of the most striking innovations in the criminal justice system during the past thirty years has been the introduction of actuarial methods – statistical models and software programs...
    read more

    primer | 10.27.15

    Data & Civil Rights: Biometric Technologies in Policing

    Robyn Caplan, Ifeoma Ajunwa, Alex Rosenblat, danah boyd

    Biometric technologies are rapidly finding use in a variety of policing contexts, and their use is expected to grow as these technologies become more accurate, cost-effective and accessible to...
    read more

    primer | 10.27.15

    Data & Civil Rights: Predictive Policing

    Sarah Brayne, Alex Rosenblat, danah boyd

    Predictive policing refers to the use of analytical techniques to make statistical predictions about potential criminal activity. The basic underlying assumption of predictive policing is that crime is not...
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    primer | 07.01.15

    Peer-to-Peer Lending

    Alexandra Mateescu

    “The collapse of the financial system starting in 2008 shattered public confidence in the traditional intermediaries of the financial system – the regulated banks. Not only did the mainstream...
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    primer | 10.30.14

    Data & Civil Rights: Criminal Justice Primer

    Alex Rosenblat, Kate Wikelius, danah boyd, Seeta Peña Gangadharan, Corrine Yu

    Discrimination and racial disparities persist at every stage of the U.S. criminal justice system, from policing to trials to sentencing. The United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its...
    read more

    primer | 10.30.14

    Data & Civil Rights: Education Primer

    Andrea Alarcon, Elana Zeide, Alex Rosenblat, Kate Wikelius, danah boyd, Seeta Peña Gangadharan, Corrine Yu

    Many education reformers see the merging of student data, predictive analytics, processing tools, and technology-based instruction as the key to the future of education and a means to further...
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    primer | 10.30.14

    Data & Civil Rights: Consumer Finance Primer

    Alex Rosenblat, Rob Randhava, danah boyd, Seeta Peña Gangadharan, Corrine Yu

    New data analytics tools, predictive technologies, and an increasingly available range of data sources have enabled new financial instruments and services to be developed, but access to high-quality services...
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    primer | 10.30.14

    Data & Civil Rights: Housing Primer

    Alex Rosenblat, Kate Wikelius, danah boyd, Seeta Peña Gangadharan, Corrine Yu

    Data has always played an important role in housing policies, practices, and financing. Housing advocates worry that new sources of data are being used to extend longstanding discriminatory practices,...
    read more

    primer | 10.30.04

    Data & Civil Rights: Employment Primer

    Alex Rosenblat, Kate Wikelius, danah boyd, Seeta Peña Gangadharan, Corrine Yu

    The complexity of hiring algorithms which fold all kinds of data into scoring systems make it difficult to detect and therefore challenge hiring decisions, even when outputs appear to...
    read more

    primer | 10.30.14

    Data & Civil Rights: Technology Primer

    Solon Barocas, Alex Rosenblat, danah boyd, Seeta Peña Gangadharan, Corrine Yu

    Data have assumed a significant role in routine decisions about access, eligibility, and opportunity across a variety of domains. These are precisely the kinds of decisions that have long...
    read more

    primer | 10.30.14

    Data & Civil Rights: Health Primer

    Alex Rosenblat, Kate Wikelius, danah boyd, Seeta Peña Gangadharan, Corrine Yu

    Data plays a central role in both medicine and insurance, enabling advances and creating new challenges. Although legislative efforts have attempted to protect the privacy of people’s health data,...
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    primer | 10.08.14

    Future of Labor: Networked Employment Discrimination

    Alex Rosenblat, Tamara Kneese, danah boyd

    As businesses begin implementing algorithms to sort through applicants and use third party services to assess the quality of candidates based on their networks, personality tests, and other scores,...
    read more

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