What We Need Now – Data Justice
September 8, 2021
In the Data Justice episode we explore the use and collection of data and how we can combat the injustices within the system.
It’s time for an exciting new episode by the What We Need Now crew at Greenpeace USA!
Imagine you just landed a new job as an Amazon delivery driver. While out completing your route you are forced to use an app that acts as your augmented manager. This “manager” monitors your driving, phone use, and even location. Another application uses an AI-powered camera to ensure all the parcels are delivered. Maybe you yawned, maybe you glanced at an incoming text alert, maybe you hit a pothole and now you have a poor score from the applications in place to monitor and manage you. Now, not only did you miss out on the chance to be promoted or given a raise, you might be in jeopardy of losing your job altogether. What would you do in this situation? Complain? Quit? Strike? Well, sadly this isn’t a hypothetical situation. Many delivery drivers employed with Amazon or contracted for Amazon have spoken up about these augmented management practices. I think many can agree that there is little room for compassion and humanity within these augmented management practices because after all algorithms are not people.
But there is hope! There are those who are working to combat instances of data injustice like the one mentioned above. These people are called Data Activists and they are fighting for data justice. The Coalition Communities of Color defines Data Justice as an approach that redresses ways of collecting and disseminating data that have invisibilized and harmed historically marginalized communities. In this episode we talk with two Data Activists who are working to educate and shed light on instances of data injustice in their own communities.
On this episode of What We Need Now, writer and producer Jasmine Conwell (she/her)–from the Greenpeace Data Team–interviews Robb King and Hamilton Martin from the DMV Hub of Data 4 Black Lives (@data4blacklives). They explore what Big Data is and the harm big data can cause. They explore Data Activism as a concept and as a way to plug into movement work. And maybe most importantly, they discuss some hopeful ways in which data is being leveraged to create change and why we all should be looking to the bright side!
Robb King (he/him) Bio:
For Robb King, using data for human-centered stories is a passion. With data and creativity, he highlights unheard stories that tell compelling narratives, reshape our understanding of the world, and spark moments for substantive change. His experience in movement work and analytics opened his eyes to the need for community control over community data, and he has spent the past six years finding ways to make that a reality. As a leader within the Data for Black Lives DMV Hub, Robb creates opportunities for local data practitioners and enthusiasts to partner with local organizers on a range of initiatives aimed at supporting the DMV’s Black and Brown communities.
“Technocratic approaches cannot completely solve issues related to the heart or morality; and everyone is a data practitioner–some just get paid for it.” – Robb King
- Twitter: @TakeCtrlDC
Hamilton Martin (he/him) Bio:
I am a San Antonio, Texas native who has been living in the DC area for over four (4) years now. I received my B.A. in political science from St. Mary’s University, and my J.D. from The Pennsylvania State University: Dickinson School of Law. I’ve been volunteering on the D4BL leadership team since 2019, where I was the programs & partnerships co-chair, and I am now working as the social chair and FOIA Liaison for our group.
“The future where law enforcement agencies are using sophisticated technologies to control and oppress Black people is not the year 3021, it is now!” – Hamilton Martin
Data 4 Black Lives links:
Call to Action:
In the comments share any concerns you have with your data.
Episode Resources/Further Reading
- Data Capitalism and Algorithmic Racism Report
- Coalition of Communities of Color
- Algorithmic Justice League
- How ICE Planned its Largest Immigration Raid in History
- D4BL – Youtube Channel
- Air Pollution and Asthma
- American Lung Association – Disparities in the Impact of Air Pollution
Jasmine: Hey y’all, I’m Jas. I use she/her/hers pronouns and am based on Piscataway land in Maryland.
Today we are talking about Data Justice and you might be asking yourself why would a Black environmentalist podcast take this topic on? And the answer as always is that it’s all connected. The collection and use of data determines most everything in our lives. For example, studies show that Black children are 3 times as likely to develop asthma as compared to white children. But why? What does that figure really tell us? It tells us that the impacts of air pollution are not evenly shared. And that alone is a staggering fact, but then when you look at the success of redlining in keeping Black families locked into cities and a lower socioeconomic class the picture gets a bit more clearer. The intentions feel more insidious. The American Lung Association found that those who live in predominantly Black or African American communities suffered greater risk of premature death from particle pollution than those who live in communities that are predominately white. So this is real, and this is sad, and is an example of how data collected in isolation can obscure the full story of what’s happening to a community. So today we’re going to explore what Data Justice is and how Data Activism can empower communities to tell their own stories.
Jasmine: For those of you who may not know me, by day at Greenpeace I work on the Data Team, and also by day I operate behind the scenes on the WWNN podcast. This episode we are talking about an issue super close to my heart, as someone who is also aspiring to be a Data Activist myself.
People love to say, “the data never lies,” and that statement conceals a lot of untruths. The fact of the matter is the data will tell the story we set it up to tell. And when data isn’t being collected by a diverse group of people and is not open access, it can become dangerous. So today we are going to explore Data Justice. We will talk with Robb King and Hamilton Martin of the DC chapter of Data for Black Lives to check in on the ways in which people are working to combat inequalities using data.
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Jasmine: Welcome to What We Need Now. This episode is focused on Data Justice and we have here today Robb and Hamilton from the DC chapter of data for Black Lives. We are super excited to have you here today if you don’t mind just introducing yourself, give us your pronouns and we’ll kick this off.
Robb: What’s up y’all? Super excited to be having this conversation with y’all today. My name is Robb King pronouns he him, his. And in DC, of course, with the DC chapter of Data for Black Lives.
Hamilton: Hey guys, I’m Hamilton. I use he him his pronouns. I’m also part of the Data for Black Lives DMV Hub chapter. Very excited as Robb is to be here and to record with you guys.
Jasmine: Awesome so starting off, what do you all do for Data for Black Lives.
Robb: Yeah, so I’ll start at like the national organization. So data for Black Lives, National Organization founded by a woman named Yeshi. And was started to really combine people who are data practitioners, techies, policy folks, and organizers to really fight issues that are at the intersections of big data, tech and social justice. And it started out as a conference that eventually kind of morphed into chapters as well now. And so within the DC chapter we abide by the same mission that the national organization goes by, which is again trying to combine those data practitioners and organizers to –what we call–create concrete and measurable change in the lives of Black and brown folks. And most of our work kind of centers on three big things: which is around political education and policy, legal work and some data community projects that we do. Which is thinking through like, what are things that folks in the Community really need from a data tech perspective? And how do we find the folks who can kind of help support that work and build that infrastructure out?
Jasmine: Awesome, that sounds amazing. And then I guess my other question is then what brought both of you respectively to this work? Like what called out to you?
Hamilton: So to your first question: what do I do for the hub? During this iteration of our leadership, I am on the leadership board. We call it leadership team where I am a kind of a…I do kind of hybrid role. I am currently the social chair. I have done…I act as a FOIA liaison. We can talk more about what that entails and I also work with a lot of coalition–local coalition groups who are similarly aligned with some of our goals on the policy level. To your second question, I was brought to this work primarily because Robb is one of my best friends out here. And he told me, “hey, I have this group I’m starting. It is something that you’re you are not familiar with, but I know one thing that you are passionate about is the love of social justice and fighting for people who look like us and so come on down.” We have our first meeting and on this day and you better be there. So that’s how I got pretty much involved.
Jasmine: That’s awesome. And then yeah I guess Robb then if you are the one who was dragging Hamilton, what brought you into this work?
Robb: Yeah, you know that’s what we call good organizing work right there.
Hamilton: Or harassment or harassment.
Robb: That too, but on a serious note. So my background is in data work and specifically within the education policy area. That’s kind of where I started. I think my original goal was to really dive into education and specifically from like a quantitative perspective and I functioned under the assumption that education will be the great equalizer. And I think as I crunched numbers within the Ed policy space and really trying to measure things, I started to realize that was not the case. And then I think through actual experience within school systems. Also realized that was not the case because there’s so many different things that impact a school system right from housing to policing all of that right. And so I kind of pivoted to strictly like data work. I’m not a technocrat because I don’t think technology or data can solve all human issues. But I do believe data and technology are one of the few things that spans across all industries. And if you can kind of figure out what’s going on within that space, you might be able to have somewhat of a decent impact, and I think that in combination with my first job, I started to feel as though the next front of the civil rights movement, or just the justice work that needs to be done is kind of centered around Big Data and technology. It’s the next big thing in my opinion that’s coming or that is kind of here and we’re slowly waking up to it.
And so. Knowing that once I heard about data for Black lives in that conference, I really wanted to go and be in a space with other people who kind of had that same vision. And it was a beautiful space. Loved it. And like I said, it started off as a conference but we knew that there are so many people, especially in this area. The DMV who wanted to attend that conference but couldn’t for a range of reasons and so we’re like, let’s just bring D4BL to the local area and we did that. Put out a call. I have pulled Hamilton in as well as a couple of other close friends. And yeah, from there it organically formed and that’s kind of how I got into the work. And part of the reason I continue doing it. It matters to me, but. Also, I take a lot of joy out of finding folks who want to be a part of movement work, but haven’t found an avenue for how to really enter into it, especially data and tech folks who feel like, oh, I’m not a protester. I’m not the person with a bullhorn and helping them realize yeah, that’s a role within the movement, but it’s not the only role. And so how do we open up that space to bring you in? Find a place where you can do good work because your skills are needed for the movement. And yeah, build the ranks of the movement. Right, so that’s kind of what keeps me going with it.
Jasmine: Awesome, I think that’s really interesting, so it kind of sounds like for you it’s the data is a way to kind of solve, like some root issues that are impacting the Black community specifically, as well as something that you’re super passionate about. And it’s also a dire need for Data Activists and data professionals to be tapping into these. This sort of space and doing this sort of work. Which brings me to my, uh, I guess next question, which is so like what kind of campaigns or projects are you working on and how are you leveraging that data to kind of? Shift the world in the way that you see fit.
Robb: The first big thing is political education, right? Only because there’s so many things around Big Data and technology that a lot of people aren’t aware of, right, or how they participate in that process, or how they used in that process, and so the big thing that we’re trying to do is 1. Educate people on that. ’cause before you can really combat an issue, you’ve got to know what the issue is, and so we spend a lot of time internally as well as in conversations with folks around the community talking about. Specifically, government surveillance and data and technology, right? The space of Big Data and tech is super wide, but I think for us right now our main focus is government surveillance and technology and the Big Data that comes along with that. So having those conversations with folks around the community, whether that’s internally like in our our general body meetings or if we’re having a zoom event where we’re inviting people from the community as well as other organizers in the DC space to come in and talk about their interactions with surveillance tech with Big Data to kind of help educate the community as a whole so that we can all get on the same page. Outside of that, the other two pieces, one is like our community data project, which is thinking through OK. What are some needs in the community at this point in time? Especially for a lot of organizers who often are strapped for time and have big ideas that they really want to tackle that they can’t tackle on their own.
And sometimes there’s data work that we can do to kind of support that, and so in one particular area we’re working with another local org Black-lead org to kind of help build out an app that showcases what are all the possible or vetted resources for legal assistance that a person may need in the community, right? Whether that’s taxes or dealing with the policing issue or even an education issue. And so helping them design something that is easy for everybody to access and so doing work like that, but also doing legal and policy work right? And so in particular, working in coalition with other folks across the city to really think through alright. What kind of technology is being procured by the government and how can we create a policy or initiative to kind of help halt or stop that? And I think Hamilton can probably go a little bit more in detail about that specifically.
Hamilton: This year we’ve dived into working with other local groups, Black, Brown and other local groups who are dedicated to not only social justice, but combatting the issues with that technology, data collection and data surveillance has on a local level. Here in DC. It’s been. Very interesting kind of giving, getting out of the data for Black lives bubble and seeing what other people have going on in their bubble and trying to find a common solution. So I’ve really enjoyed and I think Robb and everyone in our hub has really enjoyed kind of going to means and really trying to come up with solutions, not only singularly or but in a broader sense in not only DC but. Perhaps even, the whole DMV region,
Jasmine: So within that I’d heard some things talking about surveillance tech and also building apps and just other resources for Open Access. And having just even general access to online would either one of you feel like kind of just expanding upon like that issue? More of like either what is surveillance tech and like what kind of impact does that have directly on people just our lives or even expanding upon? Like the issues with? Just simply accessing online and like that disparity.
Robb: Yeah for sure. So when we talk about surveillance technology for our hub, we specifically are referring to government surveillance technology, right? So that can be anything from CCTV’s right to things that they call Stingrays that intercepts your text messages to facial recognition technology, which is the big thing that everybody knows about.
Jasmine: Now, wait, pause. They can intercept our text. That’s new to me.
Robb: Yes, scary, right?
Jasmine: I’m throwing my phone into the ocean.
Robb: Yes, and a lot of people don’t know about that, and so you can have a cop car that can park anywhere in your local area and they have up to a certain range that they can intercept. And so yeah, people can easily be tracked by the government, and it’s something that we saw a lot, especially during the uprisings of 2020. It wasn’t uncommon for police departments to really be tracking where a lot of those organizers were going, what they were doing, what they were talking about. In DC there was one particular organizer that comes to mind who actually ended up for using her information to see all of the things that the local Police Department was actually collecting on her and found out that it was a substantial amount which is wild, right? And so when we’re talking about surveillance technology, we’re talking about all of the ways that government, especially at the local area, can really. Track you specifically tracked Black and brown communities and how that can have a negative impact on your life outcomes, right? I remember one conversation I was having with another organizer from another group, she was raising concerns about the
youth. Or a young person who went to one agency, and I think it may have been a police agency and they were able to have all of this information about the young person that they were very shocked about. And so we started having a conversation about oh, you know, that’s probably due to data transfers that take place across local government agencies, right? So you have your local housing agency that collects data. You have your local transportation agency that collects. Data you have your Police Department that collects data and nine times out of 10. It’s not uncommon for that information to be passed along agencies right under the guise of it’s to make the community better or to make the community safer. But nine times out of 10, right? It’s actually coming at a negative impact to Black and brown folks.
Jasmine: That is wild, um, so I guess if you are going to ever protest, leave that phone at home. Don’t hand over that data easily. Yeah, that is shocking. I know that it happens, I just I guess I don’t really know how prevalent it is. How do we fight that and how do we protect that? Like how besides like just leaving your phone at home? What other measures can individuals take to kind of ward against these government surveillance tactics?
Hamilton: Yeah, so that’s that’s the thing Jasmine. I…a lot of times it’s not just about kind of the Stingrays or…things you can do like leaving your phone at home when you’re going out protesting. It’s– some things are just voluntary when we’re talking about policing and surveillance tech. So, what has been reported across the country’s police officers or images being taken at these protests and provided to police departments? And that being shared across different agencies, we’ve seen a litany of new technologies. And these agencies..law enforcement agencies not only sharing between themselves, but also selling to other groups outside the law enforcement realm, which is completely troubling and scary. So if we’re talking about protecting ourselves, it’s–the first line of defense is education. And I think that is what Data for Black lives on a natural level, a national level, as well as all the local hubs across the country. We have going on in coalition with some of the other groups are trying to focus on right now is educating people because just simple terms like surveillance technology and the intersection between law enforcement and surveillance is lost between from from a lot of people. So if you don’t know some of the terms and the what’s being put out there, how can you combat it? So I would encourage anyone that has– is listening to this recording to please educate yourself, whether it’s through the Data for Black Lives’ website or any of the number of YouTube channels that talk about surveillance tech. To really educate yourselves and then share that were other people. Sharing is caring in this when we’re talking about social justice. It’s–it’s important because, well, you may be able to protect yourself. You have to lookout for your brother and sister in the streets as well, because we’re all in this fight together.
Jasmine: Wow, I feel like you definitely said a lot. So first of all, we are not going to be cops out here. We’re doing their job for them, essentially by taking these pictures, posting them, tagging them, doing all the heavy lifting for the cops when we’re doing these things. So do not share pictures. Do not make their job any easier which now just like these military and police budgets? I’m like you’re gonna earn that money if we’re giving it to you, but thank you for sharing that Hamilton. That’s umm…education seems like a really big key thing. And then once you do that, you can better protect yourself and you can also spread the word to others. So in that vein, and you were talking about the measures that data for Black lives is taking to spread education on a national and then within these different hubs. I guess what I want to know then is like. What is like the single..If there is a single thing that either of you think that people like need to know right now? Like what, in our podcast terms, like what do we need now in your opinions?
Robb: That’s a big question, Jasmine.
Jasmine: I’m sorry, yeah, I just– had to ask.
Hamilton: She hit you with the fastball man. No softball throwin out here.
Robb: But no, I think that’s a really good question and I think it’s one that we ask ourselves a lot, right? And so I do want to toss this..this little tidbit into the equation. It’s that, though we focus on government surveillance, we are also very conscious of how corporate surveillance or surveillance by businesses, also kind of factors into this equation, right? And so going back to the whole education portion, a lot of folks don’t really know about how the transition of data between a for-profit institution and, say, a government agency can take place sometimes. And so thinking about things like the Ring app, right? It’s a tool owned by Amazon. But, in a lot of situations, local police departments were figuring out how to get that information from the ring app, right? As well as how to get information from the attached mobile application which was called “Neighborhood” where people could post comments or thoughts about “oh this is taking place in my neighborhood. Or this is a concern right? And Police Departments are learning how to scrape that information and use it for their purposes. And so that’s…that’s another thing that we also have to think about and consider when trying to answer that big question of what we need now, which makes it very complicated.
Jasmine: It seems like we’re being attacked on all fronts here, right?
Robb: And I think the biggest thing is transparency– for our government to really push for transparency, right? I think it’s very hard again to fight issues or solve things, or even to figure out what you should do on an individual level to protect yourself if you don’t really know what’s going on. And the big thing, like I said that we need now is transparency within our laws when it comes to the procurement of technology and the technology that’s used again under the guise of providing safety and protection for our communities.
Hamilton: And I just want to jump in jazz and real quick, Robb said– everything Robb said is right on point and I just want to add and want people to understand that they are listening to this: These for-profit companies are not your friend. OK.
Just take the Googles, the Facebooks, Instagrams. Even down to the Amazon shopping app. These companies, these apps, these technologies, while they are great to have on your phone with great tools to –for comfort of living in a first world country. These companies are for profit and they are not your friend. And a lot of these companies, as I said before, and as Robb said, they are sharing data with law enforcement for the sole purpose of policing you. And when I say “you,” I’m talking about Black and Brown communities, poor communities, inner city communities. So, you are totally correct Jasmine time we are being attacked on all fronts, so I would encourage and and I think a lot of people who are doing the work encourage you to just be vigilant and be mindful of what you’re doing, what you’re sharing within the larger frame of your life. I have a legal background, I don’t think I mentioned earlier, but a lot of these law enforcement agencies are using these companies. These for-profit companies collect the data to circumvent your 4th Amendment right. 4th Amendment rights, for everyone who may or may not know, is the right to privacy in the larger, with or without a warrant or and probable cause to get that warrant in the social justice framework. How do you get around that? You ask the Googles, the AWS, the Amazon Web Services of the world. The Ring app that’s supposed to be about protecting yourself in–in your household. You use that information. You take that information from these or really request this information. They give it to them through law enforcement agencies and it’s used to really–for the sole purpose of oppression. I’m not saying don’t get these apps. I mean I love my Amazon, Jeff Bezos, you know, curse him going to the moon or whatever he’s doing, but these are convenient apps, but just be mindful of what you’re doing and what you’re putting out there in the world. Because it may come back to you when you’re out doing the work, God’s work, in social justice, it may come back to haunt you later down the line.
Jasmine: Do we want to get into like some more of like the nitty gritty of like policy wins or different things that have come out that were really interesting?
Hamilton: What we’ve done this year so back in say, in the last year beginning of this year we kind of got with the Brennan Law Center, which is a part of NYU who wanted to see if we were interested in a FOIA request to allow us to look at certain government entities in DC, specifically the MPD, our local Police Department. What type of data they were collecting and who they were selling their data to, how they were using it, who they were sharing it with? Who’s buying this data, etc etc. So let me backup for a second. For those who don’t know what FOIA is. FOIA is the Freedom of Information Act which was passed years and years ago. The basic part of it is that us, as citizens, have a right to access and use certain information that the government kind of stores about its Citizens and groups. Obviously certain exceptions for himself. It wouldn’t be the United States government if they didn’t have exceptions carved out to kind of get around that, but generally you can send a FOIA requests about any information, whether it’s about yourself or about another government entity, etc etc. And so we wanted to see what they had. It’s been. What’s interesting about the work and kind of the fight that we have going on with the MPD is how much these groups aren’t willing to kind of..go along with the law and follow the law and provide the information that was very specific, very basic. You kind of question like what are they hiding or why can’t you provide that information? Why do we have to use the full legal power that we have within our grasp to kind of force you to do what you have..what the government has already said that you’re supposed to do? And we got some.. a lot of our legal tools at our disposal that we’re trying to.. we’re in talks with both Brennan Center and other parties. And trying to figure out.. trying to get that information. Robb has been a part of that. Do you have any perspective companies like your perception and your take on that?
Robb: First, I will reiterate. Yes, it is a difficult process to get information. And I think anybody who’s ever tried to FOIA information specifically from a Police Department could definitely relate to that. But it’s…I think one of the things I’m also recognizing is that there is data that may be procured by an agency. That you may..may not be procured in the typical way of process that it normally is for other technology tools, right? And because of that there may be things that you just don’t see or that’s hidden. Or that’s not really recorded anywhere per se in a formal manner. Which is a little concerning for me at times. Another thing that I will also flag that came to light for me through this work is the idea of fusion centers, so I’m not sure if you’ve heard of a fusion center before, but it’s basically a entity that combines law enforcement from the federal, state and sometimes local level and at times in partnership with the private for-profit corporation to collect data and information on the public, again under the guise of safety and protection. From my understanding of talking to other people, it’s very hard to also FOIA that group. Uhm, and a lot of people don’t actually know whether OR not they’re near fusion centers and chances are if you live in a big city, you are. The last thing I will also note within this specific work, when it comes to this FOIA process, we were looking specifically at social media monitoring. And there are tools that exist out there that allow folks to one, again, simply like monitor what you are posting on social media. But also some tools that also have predictive aspects to them that allow whoever is using that tool to kind of figure out. Oh, there might be a crowd here umm on this day at this time based off of what’s coming through the feeds, right?
Hamilton: I said it muted, but yeah, now we’re talking bout algorithms, which is another term that should be in your toolbox when we’re talking about data and technology and surveillance.
Robb: And so you can imagine like what that looks like if police departments are using that also to like predict when protests might take place, or when people might be putting together a rally or something right? But that’s what we specifically were focusing on and trying to get information about. In general it’s hard to get information from police departments, but when you’re looking for stuff like that in particular, it’s super super hard to get that.
Hamilton: It goes back to what Robb and I kind of–the sentiment we really try to hammer home, I think is just knowing, one, your rights and, two, educating yourself. So I guess they’re– they’re inter they’re interlocked, but educate yourself about your rights I guess is the better way to put it so that you can know how to best protect yourself in whatever circumstances. These companies aren’t your friend and these companies are in league with people who want to oppress you– the police state. So really tried to understand how you can best use.. find information that you need and think about what is protection, what protection works for you. What is most convenient and how to utilize that in your daily walk of life.
Jasmine: We’re gonna dig a little deeper after this short message, so hang tight.
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Jasmine: I was wondering if you could expand on–give an example of how an algorithm can be dangerous, like what does that look like in action?
Robb: Yeah, I could. I could jump in on that, so I think there have already been a range of cases where this has been extremely detrimental. There was a case I believe it was in Detroit recently
Hamilton: Oh Robb do you want to kind of explain what an algorithm is or, maybe circle back to that?
Robb: Yeah, yeah we can. Actually I can explain that now, so first, I’d like to start with data so data is just simply any and everything that exists out here in the world, right? So the clothes you put on, your car, your–your food that you eat, the thoughts that you think, even your own body. Those are all data points and so all of us are on a daily basis collecting and creating data. Now algorithms are just simply like rulebooks or like a recipe that we follow, right? And so with an algorithm, we’re taking data points and based off those data points, we’re making a decision about what we should do right? And so a really simple way to think about it is: say you are trying to decide on what to eat for dinner. That algorithm that you are using is “what is it that I want? What are the data points that I’m focusing on?” So like those data points could be, “do I have groceries in the fridge,” right? “If I don’t have groceries in the fridge, is there like a restaurant down the street that I can walk to and get food? What time of day is it,” right? All of those things are data points and then the decisions that you make in order to get to that final conclusion about what dinner will be that night, is essentially the algorithm that you’re running through. And so you can take that same concept and apply it to quote unquote, more complex things that take place in the world. And so one example where algorithms can have a huge negative impact on folks is a one is facial recognition technology is a… is a big thing that a lot of people talk about right now, And so I think there was a case in Detroit where there was a Black man who was falsely identified using facial recognition technology for something that he did not commit, right?
Jasmine: Oh right Yeah, I heard about that.
Robb: He was actually, I think outside playing with his children when the cops came and got him. And you know to think about what that experience was like for those children to witness their father being picked up for no reason. It’s terrifying. Yeah, I think, uh, another scenario was Compass which was a tool built by a private, for-profit organization that was supposed to be designed to take out the bias in sentencing and courts. But what folks ended up finding out is that Compass was actually giving Black and brown folks longer sentences than their white counterparts… for no, no. There was no legitimate reason, right? And yeah, that was essentially an algorithm. So instead of the judge making a decision, the judge would input data and rely on that algorithmic tool to tell them what they should assign to someone.
Jasmine: Right and I love that you bring that up in this instance, because I think a lot of times we hear and we think algorithms. That’s a way to eliminate bias as a way to kind of even the playing field. You know, we take people out of it, but I don’t think people realize that like someone is making choices behind the scenes to set up these algorithms like that is a choice. There is always going to be biased in everything, and I think that was a really great way of explaining that.
Robb: Yeah, definitely. And I will say, you know. Algorithms are one thing, but the key issue for me is the data that we use. Oftentimes, the data that we are using in my opinion, is racist, right? One of the things we talk about in the data field is that if you have bad inputs, you’re gonna have bad outputs, right? No matter what you do. And so a lot of times we’re using data and information that’s actually connected to racist policies that have taken place throughout the country. And it’s being used also by a workforce that is not reflective of the people who are being negatively impacted by the creation. And so when you do look at the data field and those folks who are building algorithms, they tend to be white and male right? And one big thing when it comes to that that I heart bone a lot is that oftentimes when we’re talking about big data and technology and algorithms in connection with human beings, we’re often trying to define what I call abstract concepts. So, concepts that are not really easy to..to give a solid definition for. Uhm, so for example. An idea or concept that is not abstract would be like a dog. We all have a shared understanding of what a dog is, but if we were talking about something like “safety”. Depending on the identities that you hold, where you come from, your idea of safety will be very different from another person, right? Or if we’re talking about reliability or trustworthiness, will be very different depending on your context and if you have a workforce that is predominately comprised of 1 demographic group, there is a good chance that they may have one idea of what say, like safety or trustworthiness, reliability is and they get to define how to measure that, but it may not necessarily be reflective or encompassing of how other groups experienced those concepts.
Jasmine: Really interesting to think about. Everyone has a different perception and I think that’s a really good way to illustrate that. So I wanted to give you all space. If there’s anything we didn’t talk about, or if there’s like if you have something that you want to talk about or promote, give you this last couple minutes to share those things.
Hamilton: In the vein of education and supporting, educating ourselves and each other. I want to make sure everyone has like the right tools, right? So if– when you have time, please go to Data for Black Lives website and there is a report it’s called “The Data Capitalism Report” and it has a lot of the terms that we’ve kind of–Robb and I kind of loosely thrown around in our work. That– Robb’s in data tech, data and research, I’m not but I’m learning a lot, so I–I we’re throwing these words around a lot. Kinda like “what?”. But these are important things to know when we’re talking about doing the work. If this is the type–if this is your ministry, definitely read this. It’s only… brace yourself, it’s only 43 pages, but it’s it’s–it’s a lot of great information. You can download it. It’s in PDF. You can do it in PDF, or I think I can maybe get it depending on your computer a slideshow type of format. Control F if you’re looking for something specific when we’re talking about uh Robb was just in his last segment talkin bout algorithmic racism, policing, surveillance we’re talking about, uh, I think of where we didn’t use specifically, we kind of talked about it without using the term, what is a data weapon? That’s something that’s important for you guys to–to know and to to use because it’s–it’s prevalent. Look that up. There’s also another plug for Data for Black Lives. They have had a series of YouTube videos. That are kind of also really like 3-4 minute videos, 5 minute videos. Kind of explain some of these terms and kind of get you on the track if you want to look at that before you looked at the report that I, I would suggest that. What other things should people…yeah go ahead
Jasmine: Can I…interject because you did drop something that I’ve been kind of itching to talk about and I’m scared to do it in the last couple of minutes, but you had mentioned data capitalism and I did actually read the report. I took a look through and I actually was there when it was revealed and it’s really fascinating. And I just wanted to know if you could quickly just like touch on like. Because, like this, is the work that you all were doing with Amazon, correct in like…Or the protests with Amazon and I just wanted to know if you could quickly cover data capitalism and unpack that term just a little bit.
Robb: Yeah, for sure. Essentially, data capitalism is thinking about all the ways that data is collected or created on people with the goal of making money and also as a result re-entrenching issues of inequality, right? It kind of goes back to a lot of things we’ve discussed up to this point around, uh, you know, the things that you go online and look for that you put in a search engine, right? How is that information or data that’s very personal to you being collected and then either sold to other people or used in some way that negatively impacts you, right? Whether that’s restricting ads that you may see for jobs that you would be a fit for, but because some algorithm made a decision about it, you don’t see it, right? Or showing you only for-profit colleges, which was an issue at one point for certain websites, institutions. Yeah, it’s thinking about all the ways that those things happen and how it. Reinforces a lot of the inequalities that we see in society today.
Hamilton: There’s an old adage that numbers don’t lie, which is on the basic term true, but numbers can be manipulated and the same thing goes for– for data, police… These big tech companies, when they’re talking about data collection and sharing it, they’re going to say, “hey, these numbers, this data is what it is. We’re not doing anything.” But don’t be fooled, it can be manipulated and used as a tool and a weapon against us, so I’ll just I. I know I sound like a broken record between Robb and I, probably tired of hearing us say this phrase, but like really, be careful. Really educate yourself. Do the work. I–I do believe and I think Robb believes too, if we do the work and we work together, we will have progress because technology is beautiful and makes life easier, but it could also be evil. I mean, we’ve all seen Terminator, right?
Robb: And I will quickly add. First, I do want to honor and give a shout out to, one, everybody on our leadership team who is consistently putting in the work to help move the ball on a lot of this, as well as all the folks who are in our hub, but also a special shout out to our national team. To Yeshi for the vision that she had. To Tawana, our national organizing director who has been super helpful in helping us navigate a lot of tricky waters. Um and to Aki and Paul
Hamilton: She’s number one. They’re all number one
Robb: Yeah and to Ocky and Paul, who also put together that Data Capitalism report that’s been helping a lot of people put some really complex concepts into really digestible terms and helping really guide the work and move it forward. So I really wanna give them a shout out and honor them. ‘Cause I know we’ve been talking about a lot of things to be scared of. I do want to highlight, you know, some work that I’ve seen or heard of that, I think is profound and outstanding. Outstanding across the country. One is the work of Our Data Bodies. If you haven’t heard of that or looked at it, again, it’s called our data bodies. It was put together by a couple of folks from I think, North Carolina, Detroit and maybe LA or New York. And they also created somewhat of a strategy book I think to kind of help folks think through how to navigate protecting themselves and their community from surveillance. And then I also want to highlight and lift up the work of Mijente. I believe they did a lot of work around tech surveillance and ICE and put together some amazing toolkits. One is for student organizers and then there is a larger communications, I think, toolkit as well as a comic book that they put together which is super super dope to kind of help explain how surveillance tech and ICE work together and how it impacts Black and brown folks.
Jasmine: Awesome….another big question and I apologize, but uhm. What kind of brings you hope when you’re looking at this and it just feels like this scale is so big? Uhm, I know that you’re saying like there’s a lot of initiatives, but like where do you guys personally derive like your sense of like how do you move forward through this? Because I’m imagining it’s really heavy.
Hamilton: Oh, if you guys can’t see us, but Robb is pointing at me because he knows I’m the local pessimist. I’m always ready and down for the fight, but I’m not…I don’t always think about the victory, I just want to get to the victory. I may not be at the party, I may be tired from the party, from–excuse me from the fight. I might be tired from the fight so I might miss the victory party. But to answer your question, Jasmine, I would have to say the level of awareness based off the last I would say five years of society as we are today. I’m speaking specifically about the killings of Black people around America because of police brutality. The engagement of people, young people, young Black people in the political sphere to truly, really understand how this world works and how everything is connected; from the prison system to the criminal justice system to data and technology, so on and so forth. And taking these pieces together and laying out a map and really wanting to educate themselves and the people around them so that we can better our lives. So we’re not talking about this, 60 years from now when we’re, we’re at the later stages of our lives, so… I’m excited that people are coming to these groups are interested. And not just Black people other groups, including folks who are white, white-led groups, are wanting to get in the fight, whereas people have maybe been more passive in some of these talks. I think the last couple years, especially the uprising that occurred last summer, has really galvanized a new group of social justice, as some folks say, social justice warriors as a pejorative. I think it’s it’s. It’s a title that is….It’s full of praise. People really want to change and don’t want things that happened 60, 70, 100 years ago to be prevalent 60, 70, 100 years from now.
Robb: I appreciate that Hamilton, and I think I can definitely resonate with a lot of that. I will answer this question in like 2 different ways.
Hamilton: A very Robb thing to do.
Robb: It is. Uhm, the 1st way is a more general approach towards just movement work. I see movement work as a, in some aspects, a never ending road and that’s how I often describe it to people. And I think sometimes people get a little disheartened by that view of movement work. But for me it’s not a disheartening viewpoint. It’s a realistic one I think. But also one to kind of help you reimagine how you see your role in the work and how you continue pushing yourself forward. And so when I look at it in that way, I find hope or, what I would call wins or successes, in the little things right. This work is like a pie. I want to find the section of the pie that I understand that I feel as though I can make an impact on and I want to attack that piece of the pie doesn’t mean that the pie will be completely gone if I accomplished what I want to accomplish. But at least a portion of it is cut down. And then I also find joy in inspiring other people to come into the space or to take up the mantle of the work, right? I think the biggest lost or the biggest loss in this work is if there is nobody left to continue it. And so sometimes for me actually, what may seem like a loss to certain people, like say you’re losing a certain policy or certain
campaign. Can be a win to me if it inspires a galvanizes other people to come out and continue doing the work at a degree or a level that it wasn’t at before. That brings me hope when it comes to data work specifically in Data Justice. I think the rise of organizations like Data for Black lives, the rise of organizations like the Algorithmic Justice League, Black Futures Lab. You are starting to see a lot of Black and brown led organizations and also women led organizations who are really trying to tackle this issue. And I think that is it’s beautiful and also gives me a lot of hope. But I also think that policy wins that take place, that we may not always be aware of, right? Whether that’s like the thing is the GDPR in Europe or local policy wins that take place across the country. Whether that’s in LA or New York or in Massachusetts, and so those little moments also give me hope.
Jasmine: Oh wow.
Hamilton: That’s a very me answer man. I just want to say that I totally agree with Robb like when you do this, this fight is never ending and it shouldn’t end when you have a country founded on the enslavement of people, Black people, it will never be a perfect union. But that isn’t to say that we can’t be a better union. So there’s always going to be a need. As Robb said, people to do the work the work is going to change, so you have to change with it. And then there’s going to be a space for people to to do what they do best. Whether it’s if you’re a “march on the street,” march in the street. If you’re someone who’s more organized, organized marches and and the talks and conferences. If you’re someone who’s more of a, “hey, I can’t do that, but I can do things in the background, like write legislation or or get funding with
some of these or these organizations and groups,” do that. We are not all the same. We all have different skills. We have different passions. We have different avenues and access to for things to work in our favor, figure it out and do the work. Because if we all pitch in, we can have a better tomorrow. We can. We can look back at the end of our lives. And while there still be worked we had I’m sure. We can honestly say hey it was bad, but it’s not as bad or it’s much better than it was.
Jasmine: So I just wanted to say thank you. Robb and Hamilton, for both sharing your hopes and dreams and some of your fears with me today. There are a lot of constructive things that we can take from this conversation and just wanted to say thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedules. To be here in conversation with what we need now.
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