The Power of Information
Innovating at the intersection of data and activism
by Seth Laxman
September 15, 2021
As technology evolves, we must stay up to date on the ways data injustice can cause harm, and the ways data can be wielded for good.
When I first joined Greenpeace USA’s data team as summer intern, I wasn’t familiar with what a data team actually did. I was excited to use my knowledge of geography and GIS map making to support one of the most impactful environmental non-profits in the world, but did not understand how data and activism intersected.
Data, by definition, is organized information. Recently, the power of big data has been a hot topic in the news, in particular the sinister ways people’s data is being used by big corporations to make money and perpetuate systemic injustice and prejudice. This has been the reality for centuries, from data being manipulated to exact racist policies like redlining to exclude people of color from neighborhoods and mortgage loans, to biased data collection that has led to an imbalance of health and wellness information between women and men. Data injustices affect individuals and communities around the world, and as technology evolves, we must stay up to date on the ways it can cause harm, and the ways this power can be wielded for good.
At Greenpeace USA, we believe that data must be treated with integrity at every level, from collection, to storage, and finally analysis — consistently taking privacy and justice into account. We believe that we must be activists with data in the same manner that we are activists in direct, non-violent protest. By working to reduce harm caused by biased data collection we fight to change the imbalance of information power and availability.
One way we do this is by being ethical stewards of data, both the data of our supporters and the public at large, instead of seeing data as a commodity to be exploited. We want to see the power of data integrated across our entire organization, utilized to its full potential to inform our campaigning and engagement work so that we can more effectively bring people together for the issues we champion.
In August 2021, we held our first ever Data Activist Co-op, a three-day virtual conference that brought over 400 individuals, experts, and activists from across the data, technology, and social justices sphere together to collaborate, learn, share and solve in over 30 different sessions. Attendees and presenters alike were empowered to discover how progressive groups are working to protect data, learn how individuals traditionally marginalized by the information age can reclaim power over their data, and create toolkits to advance data justice work in their own communities.
The Co-op was just one step in our journey towards implementing the principles of data activism and stewardship in our team, our organization, and beyond.
This essay is part of our Perspectives: Our Next Fifty Years series, in which we reflect briefly on our first fifty years, but more importantly, we lay out the future we are building together—collaborative, ambitious, and intersectional. The work ahead won’t be easy, but we’ve never shied away from hard work. We continue to push for policies that recognize the contributions and leadership of marginalized groups, and we amplify their voices, looking to their wisdom to show us the way. We hold corporations accountable, demanding real action that puts people ahead of profit. We work each day with our partners to co-create green, safe planet for all beings. We recognize that equality is not necessarily justice. We demand more from our leaders, from our colleagues, and from ourselves. A green and peaceful world isn’t just a slogan—it is our mission, and it takes each one of us to get there.