Data Activism

/ˈdeɪtə ˈæktɪˌvɪzəm/

New social practices enabled by data and technology which aim to create political change (Milan and Gutiérrez).

The large-scale generation of data that has occurred over the past decade has given rise to data activism, defined by Stefania Milan and Miren Gutiérrez, scholars in technology and society at the University of Amsterdam and University of Deusto, as “new social practices rooted in technology and data.” These authors further discuss this term, arguing:

“Data activism indicates social practices that take a critical approach to big data. Examples include the collective mapping and geo-referencing of the messages of victims of natural disasters in order to facilitate disaster relief operations, or the elaboration of open government data for advocacy and campaigning. But data activism also embraces tactics of resistance to massive data collection by private companies and governments, such as the encryption of private communication, or obfuscation tactics that put sand into the data collection machine.

Milan and Gutiérrez further elaborate on these two forms of data activism in their paper “Technopolitics in the Age of Big Data.” Here, they argue all data activism is either proactive or reactive. They state:

“We identify two forms of data activism: proactive data activism, whereby citizens take advantage of the possibilities offered by big data infrastructure for advocacy and social change, and reactive data activism, namely grassroots efforts aimed at resisting massive data collection and protecting users from malicious snooping.”

An example of reactive data activism comes from Media Action Grassroots Network, a network of social justice organizations based in the United States. This network provides digital security training to grassroots activists working on racial justice issues.

An example of proactive data activism is discussed in “Data witnessing: attending to injustice with data in Amnesty International’s Decoders project.” There, author Jonathan Gray, a critical data scholar, examines “what digital data practices at Amnesty International’s Decoders initiative can add to the understanding of witnessing.” According to Gray, witnessing is a concept that has been used in law, religion, and media, among others, to explore the construction of evidence and experience. In this paper, Gray references four data witnessing projects, which are:

“(i) witnessing historical abuses with structured data from digitised documents; (ii) witnessing the destruction of villages with satellite imagery and machine learning; (iii) witnessing environmental injustice with company reports and photographs; and (iv) witnessing online abuse through the classification of Twitter data. These projects illustrate the configuration of experimental apparatuses for witnessing injustices with data.”

Within the more recent context, proactive data activism has several notable examples. Civil rights activists in Zanesville, Ohio used data to demonstrate the inequitable access to clean water between predominantly white communities and black communities. A collection of activists, organizers, and mathematicians formed Data 4 Black Lives to promote justice for Black communities through data and data science. Finally, in an effort to monitor government accountability in providing COVID-19 case data, Indonesian activists created a platform where citizens can independently report COVID-19 cases.