How Philanthropy Can Help Lead on Data Justice

Louise Lief at Stanford Social Innovation Review: “Today, data governs almost every aspect of our lives, shaping the opportunities we have, how we perceive reality and understand problems, and even what we believe to be possible. Philanthropy is particularly data driven, relying on it to inform decision-making, define problems, and measure impact. But what happens when data design and collection methods are flawed, lack context, or contain critical omissions and misdirected questions? With bad data, data-driven strategies can misdiagnose problems and worsen inequities with interventions that don’t reflect what is needed.

Data justice begins by asking who controls the narrative. Who decides what data is collected and for which purpose? Who interprets what it means for a community? Who governs it? In recent years, affected communities, social justice philanthropists, and academics have all begun looking deeper into the relationship between data and social justice in our increasingly data-driven world. But philanthropy can play a game-changing role in developing practices of data justice to more accurately reflect the lived experience of communities being studied. Simply incorporating data justice principles into everyday foundation practice—and requiring it of grantees—would be transformative: It would not only revitalize research, strengthen communities, influence policy, and accelerate social change, it would also help address deficiencies in current government data sets.

When Data Is Flawed

Some of the most pioneering work on data justice has been done by Native American communities, who have suffered more than most from problems with bad data. A 2017 analysis of American Indian data challenges—funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Morris K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Foundation—documented how much data on Native American communities is of poor quality, inaccurate, inadequate, inconsistent, irrelevant, and/or inaccessible. The National Congress of American Indians even described American Native communities as “The Asterisk Nation,” because in many government data sets they are represented only by an asterisk denoting sampling errors instead of data points.

Where it concerns Native Americans, data is often not standardized and different government databases identify tribal members at least seven different ways using different criteria; federal and state statistics often misclassify race and ethnicity; and some data collection methods don’t allow tribes to count tribal citizens living off the reservation. For over a decade the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs has struggled to capture the data it needs for a crucial labor force report it is legally required to produce; methodology errors and reporting problems have been so extensive that at times it prevented the report from even being published. But when the Department of the Interior changed several reporting requirements in 2014 and combined data submitted by tribes with US Census data, it only compounded the problem, making historical comparisons more difficult. Moreover, Native Americans have charged that the Census Bureau significantly undercounts both the American Indian population and key indicators like joblessness….(More)”.