Data & Civil Rights: Technology Primer

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 been the focus of civil rights campaigns. The results have been mixed. Companies draw on data in choosing how to focus their attention or distribute their resources, finding reason to cater to some of its customers while ignoring others. Governments use data to enhance service delivery and increase transparency, but also to decide whom to subject to special scrutiny, sanction, or punishment. The technologies that enable these applications are sometimes designed with a particular practice in mind, but more often are designed more abstractly, such that technologists are often unaware of and not testing for the ways in which they might benefit some and hurt others.

The technologies and practices that are driving these shifts are often described under the banner of “big data.” This concept is both vague and controversial, particularly to those engaged in the collection, cleaning, manipulation, use, and analysis of data. More often than not, the specific technical mechanisms that are being invoked fit under a different technical banner: “data mining.”

Data mining has a long history in many industries, including marketing and advertising, banking and finance, and insurance. As the technologies have become more affordable and the availability of data has increased, both public and private sectors—as well as civil society—are envisioning new ways of using these techniques to wrest actionable insights from once intractable datasets. The discussion of these practices has prompted fear and anxiety as well as hopes and dreams. There is a significant and increasing gap in understanding between those who are and are not technically fluent, making conversations about what’s happening with data challenging. That said, it’s important to understand that transparency and technical fluency is not always enough. For example, those who lack technical understanding are often frustrated because they are unable to provide oversight or determine the accuracy of what is produced while those who build these systems realize that even they cannot meaningfully assess the product of many algorithms.

This primer provides a basic overview to some of the core concepts underpinning the “big data” phenomenon and the practice of data mining. The purpose of this primer is to enable those who are unfamiliar with the relevant practices and technical tools to at least have an appreciation for different aspects of what’s involved.

This document is a workshop primer from Data & Civil Rights: Why “Big Data” is a Civil Rights Issue.