How Data Can Map and Make Racial Inequality More Visible (If Done Responsibly)

Reflection Document by The GovLab: “Racism is a systemic issue that pervades every aspect of life in the United States and around the world. In recent months, its corrosive influence has been made starkly visible, especially on Black people. Many people are hurting. Their rage and suffering stem from centuries of exclusion and from being subject to repeated bias and violence. Across the country, there have been protests decrying racial injustice. Activists have called upon the government to condemn bigotry and racism, to act against injustice, to address systemic and growing inequality.

Institutions need to take meaningful action to address such demands. Though racism is not experienced in the same way by all communities of color, policymakers must respond to the anxieties and apprehensions of Black people as well as those of communities of color more generally. This work will require institutions and individuals to reflect on how they may be complicit in perpetuating structural and systematic inequalities and harm and to ask better questions about the inequities that exist in society (laid bare in both recent acts of violence and in racial disadvantages in health outcomes during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis). This work is necessary but unlikely to be easy. As Rashida Richardson, Director of Policy Research at the AI Now Institute at NYU notes:

“Social and political stratifications also persist and worsen because they are embedded into our social and legal systems and structures. Thus, it is difficult for most people to see and understand how bias and inequalities have been automated or operationalized over time.”

We believe progress can be made, at least in part, through responsible data access and analysis, including increased availability of (disaggregated) data through data collaboration. Of course, data is only one part of the overall picture, and we make no claims that data alone can solve such deeply entrenched problems. Nonetheless, data can have an impact by making inequalities resulting from racism more quantifiable and inaction less excusable.

…Prioritizing any of these topics will also require increased community engagement and participatory agenda setting. Likewise, we are deeply conscious that data can have a negative as well as positive impact and that technology can perpetuate racism when designed and implemented without the input and participation of minority communities and organizations. While our report here focuses on the promise of data, we need to remain aware of the potential to weaponize data against vulnerable and already disenfranchised communities. In addition, (hidden) biases in data collected and used in AI algorithms, as well as in a host of other areas across the data life cycle, will only exacerbate racial inequalities if not addressed….(More)”

ALSO: The piece is supplemented by a crowdsourced listing of Data-Driven Efforts to Address Racial Inequality.