woke up this morning, layered on two sweaters and a jacket, and went across the street to the media lab, where the DATA FOR BLACK LIVES conference is happening all weekend. check out the livestream at https://www.facebook.com/data4blacklives
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i’m sad i won’t be able to attend most of the panels. but i made it to the opening panel. here are some very incomplete notes i jotted down about what everyone said –
KAMALA HARRIS, my senator from california, recorded a video message to kick off the morning. she talked about the the power of technology and data science to bring change to the criminal justice system.
CATHY O’NEIL, author of Weapons of Math Destruction, talked about how algorithms and data are never neutral; they reflect decisions made by people in power about what and how information should be used. she cites examples of data bias in predictive policing and criminal risk assessment. there’s a critical need for ethics and accountability in data science, and a “bill of rights for data” so that everyday citizens can understand how their data is being used.
MALIKA SAADA SAAR, google’s senior counsel on civil and human rights, spoke about the power of documentation. smartphones, cameras, microphones, VR, give us new ways to bear witness to human rights abuses and give voice to people who have historically been marginalized. smartphones and social media were critical for the BlackLivesMatter movement, by making police brutality visible and visceral. human rights abuses happen in silence; technology can help us break that silence.
DR. ATYIA MARTIN, chief resilience officer for the city of boston, talked about her work on boston’s first ever resilience strategy. she also talked about how racism is complex and systematic; it’s not a binary of racists and nonracists. it’s a system that’s collectively, regularly reinforced, and that we all participate in. that broader context is important — where do data and technology fit into that system? how can we use data and technology to change it? “If we’re not managing our bias, then our bias is managing us.”
PURVI SHAH talked about her work co-founding the LAW FOR BLACK LIVES network. Law, like data, is often framed as neutral, objective, emotionless, and this means that it makes systems of discrimination seem normal and fair. she talked about how she went to law school expecting to learn about justice, and found instead that our legal system was rife with legalized oppression. she cites the case of johnson v. m’intosh, which involved white people laying claim to native land, and which became the foundation for all modern property law. she also talked about her experience in the BlackLivesMatter movement; how the media portrayed protestors as thugs and looters, but what she saw were teachers, families, disabled people, babies. she talked about getting teargassed. and she talked about how hundreds of people needed lawyers, but there was a deficit of lawyers willing to represent these so-called “thugs and looters.” that led to the creation of LAW FOR BLACK LIVES, centered on the concept of MOVEMENT LAWYERING. movement lawyering holds that law is not neutral; that law must primarily be a tool for empowering people. movement lawyering also means starting with partnership and trust. “there are no rogue agents; there are no savior complexes.” decenter yourselves and center Black leadership. in that spirit, she asks us to consider — what might MOVEMENT DATA SCIENCE look like?
THE DATA FOR BLACK LIVES MANIFESTO:
DATA AS PROTEST
There were 144 protests in 26 cities across the country on the day the cop who killed Eric Garner got away with murder. For those of us who protested in Miami, we did not know Eric Garner personally, but that did not matter. What brought us together was the common experience of grief that came with the loss of an innocent life, particularly when the theft of that life was authorized by the law. We did not know Oscar Grant, or Sandra Bland, or Mike Brown. But we knew our own–every single one of us who took over the I-95 highway had attended funerals, comforted grieving family members, and cried for those who were slain. All of us knew what it meant to live with our backs against the wall. All of us had worn black before we held the Black Lives Matter signs.
The danger and the urgency of being on the highway was not new to us. Three years earlier, we drove 7 hours to the Florida state capitol the day after Trayvon Martin’s murderer was acquitted. Within days, young people mobilized by the hundreds from all over the US to join us as we occupied governor Rick Scott’s office. Many were barely over the age of 18. We slept on the cold marble floor of the state capitol, surrounded by federal agents and undercover law enforcement. We missed class and were fired from our jobs because we could not leave. To go home meant to face a new reality, one that we were unwilling to accept — with a single verdict it had now become legal in Florida to kill a Black child.
For the silenced, the internet is a megaphone. For the powerless, technology is power. A movement was growing all over the country, and the internet became the rallying point — a place where we could leave our individual silent struggles and take part in something greater. Where we were no longer afraid. Social media became press, and a forum for the voiceless. It became a street corner on which to congregate, free of police cars. But it was also a dining room table, a living room sofa where we could cry, mourn and strategize. Where laughter could birth resilience.
It became a way for people who once felt isolated in their experiences to find connection and collective purpose.
In his seminal speech, The Other America, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. defines riot as the language of the unheard. He urges people to condemn the conditions that create riots as forcefully as they condemn the riots. He asks, “What has America failed to hear today?” Riots were necessary to change the status quo, to expose and disrupt a system where racism was not only encouraged, but in which the dispossession of entire peoples was seen as necessary to maintaining the American way of life.
We are once again living in an era of the unhread. The police dogs and fire hoses of our foreparents were replaced with crack cocaine, police brutality, and a new system of social control ossified in the legal apparatus known as the criminal justice system. Today, oppression takes on new and different forms. Risk assessment algorithms — with the veneer of objectivity — reinforce historical oppression in the courtroom. New forms of redlining, enabled by “big data” and machine learning, have taken root in Black communities across the country. And with detailed polling data, state legislatures have disenfranchised millions of Black voters through gerrymandering and targeted voter suppression. New forms of racism demand new forms of activism and resistance.
We took to the streets because all other channels of communication were gridlocked. We blocked the busiest highway on the East Coast because like moving traffic — the onslaught of policies, practices and systems that had become the bedrock of our society could only be disrupted by protest. We protested because like the ones that came before us, and the ones who came before them, we were unwavering in the principle that our lives were worth fighting for. Data, like protest, is a form of advocacy when all other channels are blocked. No one marches against moving traffic unless the highways are safer than their own homes. No one puts their bodies on the line unless their voices alone are not enough. But some narratives created by data can only be disrupted by data. And when the stories and experiences of individuals fall on deaf ears, there is power in a number.
DATA AS ACCOUNTABILITY
Since the advent of computing, data systems have penetrated virtually every aspect of our social and economic lives. These new data regimes have the power to fight bias and racism, but as we are witnessing, this potential is limited by the choices and assumptions of human beings. If we are not careful, the anti-Black racism we seek to resist will become further embedded into the systems that govern our society.
Algorithmic racism is not new; its logic is inherent in our country’s founding. In 1787, the frameres of the constitution reached an agreement now known as the three-fifths compromise. In a single phrase — “three fifths of all other persons” — the degradation of Black livelihood in America was encoded in mathematical terms. But 3/5 was not just a fraction, but a coefficient in an algorithm known as the electoral college, a process devised to elect representation that has persisted to this day.
This was not a compromise between Black Americans and white Americans but a compromise between Northern whites, who coveted political dominance, and Southern whites, who sought to inflate the population of slaveholding states to increase their political influence as slavery made them rich.
As an algorithmic process, the electoral college did not define success as democratic representation (one person, one vote as we define it today). Within this perverse logic, Black people were relegated to property rather than personhood, fully present in the everyday violence and humiliation that was chattel slavery, but denied any semblance of citizenship. With the electoral college, the only way slavery could have been abolished in the early days of the union was if Black people were counted as “zero”, giving more power to whites in the North to whom slavery was more of an economic threat than a moral calamity.
What was incentivized in this algorithm is a reality we have yet to confront — the brutal, enduring and deeply ingrained impulse to deny Black people’s political power at all costs. The basic algorithm that resulted in the election of Thomas Jefferson as the first President-elect of the United States and ensured that a Southern slave owner won 12 of the first 16 elections, is an early iteration of the same electoral college algorithm that has upheld anti-Black racism in the highest office of this country today. Two hundred and thirty years later, the moral depravity that was sent into motion by this algorithm has succeeded. Two hundred and thirty years later, this algorithm is still working.
It is with this history in mind that we hold these truths to be self-evident, that the future of this nation depends on our collective ability to denounce the brutal logic on which our country was formed. Our call to action is simple: we must apply the same critical lens to the algorithms and technologies of the present that we apply in retrospect to the past. For we know that this oppressive mathematics has not disappeared, but as evolved and transmuted over time, resurfacing under the guise of progress.
At this very moment, police departments across the country are using sophisticated predictive algorithms to target and intimidate entire communities of people. Acclaimed as groundbreaking advances in “scientific” policing, these technologies continue the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, reinforcing the inherent impulse of racism to deny Black people the freedom of citizenship and personhood. These technologies do not work in isolation — In the 2016 election, 2.2 million Black people were denied their fundamental right of citizenship, stripped of the right to vote because of prior criminal convictions and denied a voice in the decisions that impact their lives. This is the modern legacy of slavery and the mathematical racism that was the three-fifths compromise.
But we dream of a new world. One where data and analytics are used in novel ways to build progressive movements and promote civic engagement. A world where the reclamation of the very methods that have been weaponized against Black communities will be used to reject and overcome unconscious bias in decision-making and to detect and expose racism in housing, education, and public health. We conceive of a world where the data and modeling that led to decades of redlining and housing discrimination are used to build wealth in Black communities. Where the troves of election data that has been used to disenfranchise Black voters are leveraged instead to modernize voter registration and ensure that every single eligible Black voter makes it to the polls.
Our panelists and presenters have used data and technology in innovative ways to mobilize formerly incarcerated people in Louisiana, the state with the highest rate of incarceration in the country and therefore in the world. They have developed new mathematical models of reverse racist gerrymandering practices. They have fought racism and bias in machine learning and artificial intelligence. Our panelists have courageously advocated for a new future for Black creative production, one where Black artists and entertainers own their work as well as the immense value created by their data. With the past as their compass, they have built community-led maker-spaces and digital fabrication labs in Detroit, their hometown and a city whose resilience in the face of automation and state-sanctioned violence must be a blueprint for us all.
Accountability means the power to influence the decisions that impact your life. It means the ability to hold those in power liable for their actions, but most importantly, to be represented in the first place. In the absence of true democracy, data has the unique ability to amplify the voices of those who have been silenced and to make them impossible to ignore. With data — whether community-lead surveys or machine learning algorithms — decision-makers are forced to reckon with the decisions that have made the survival of so many impossible.
DATA AS COLLECTIVE ACTION
Enter the people. Out of hiding they come. From out of dimly lit laboratories, amongst stacks and library cubicles. From narrow roads in rural towns lined with shotgun houses, from the isolation of tall buildings and offices housed within cities built by the sweat of their brow. Can you see them walking in unison? They are here to gather.
See them coming off of the highways, moving through cars and traffic, off of bridges and intersections. Out of prison gates they come, rejoicing for the coming of a time where neither bars nor borders can limit possibility. See them coming, chanting and singing. A new way of life, a new country is upon us.
Enter the people. From the depths of the holds of the slaving ship as it surges over the Atlantic. They are holding on to each other as firmly as they hold onto their languages, their traditions. In song, in memory, they will instruct the ones who come after them. For them, rhythm is a way of knowing.
Let us all listen. A powerful assembly of voices ascending above the cotton, sugarcane and tobacco fields. They sing because the slave holders have long banned talking drums. For even they know their power as an ancient precursor to the world wide web, used to relay messages to enslaved people across plantations, as far as a hundred miles away.
Piercing through rows of dirt and the thickness of the forest, the correspondence is subversive, a loud percussion, yet hidden in plain sight. This language, syncopation, was a rhythm that was foreign to the ears of their oppressors, a sound that resonated resilience, penetrating the enduring forces of persecution.
They sang, music is a Black secret, a technology of resistance birthed as their lives were under siege. Songs that were highly sophisticated compositions, complex beats and sounds that transmitted crucial information across space and time. Information to organize, to gather, to plot. Data in service of escape.
Our ancestors imagined freedom while living in chains. They proclaimed a future without slavery in the midst of an institution that asserted its permanence. They refused to be limited by the conditions of the present, even when those conditions made survival impossible. For the future of humanity depended on it.
This weekend we impore you to ask yourselves, how do data and technology function in society? Are they forces for justice or are they instruments of oppression? And what role do we all play in shaping their impact? The arc of the universe may bend towards justice, but only if we bend it so. We are the leaders we’ve been waiting for, and today we gather.
Welcome to Data for Black Lives.
—– Yeshimabeit Milner, Executive Director of Data for Black Lives