Data, justice and power: how data can light the way to a fairer world
By Claire Melamed, CEO, Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data
No one thought 2020 would be like this. News pages are filled with images of violence against protestors in familiar streets of New York, Washington D.C., and Hong Kong. George Floyd’s face is everywhere. Meanwhile, we’ve been on lockdown, hiding from the invisible menace of COVID-19, which picks off the oldest, the weakest, and those already suffering injustice and discrimination.
This moment is bringing the uses and abuses of power in our societies to the forefront of debate.
Power is exercised through many channels. Those of us who work with numbers know that data, too, is power, and it is power that can be used for good, or for oppression and harm. Data can be a powerful tool for positive social change — it falls to us who work with numbers to ensure that is the case.
Data can bring together the head and the heart. The names break our hearts — George Floyd, Mark Duggan, João Pedro Matos Pinto, Breonna Taylor, Sean Reed, and too many others. The numbers add up to powerful statistics — that in 2019, Black people were victims of nearly one quarter of fatal shootings but make up less than 14 percent of the total population. These uncover the structural inequalities deeply embedded in the fabric of our societies, and demand action.
To harness the power of data to fight injustices of race, gender, disability, or geography, data must be produced and analyzed within a just system.
This means a system that:
- Speaks truth to power
Governments who want to hide the truth instinctively fear the power of numbers. Take for example, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s attempt to stop publishing the COVID-19 death figures as the numbers rose. Control the information and you control the story. This is why independent producers of data and information are a key part of good governance. The UK statistics authority, for example, slapped down the British government in the strongest terms for the misuse of data, accusing the Secretary of State for Health of releasing COVID-19 testing data that was aimed at showing “the largest number of tests, even at the expense of understanding.”
Outside of government, data is also a powerful weapon of truth. Civil society organizations like Data for Black Lives, Sightsavers on disabilities, or BudgIT on corruption, and many others are using data to illuminate and challenge the realities of systems that marginalize and oppress people.
If data is to be part of building a more just world, it must be collected and used freely and independently to tackle the powers that maintain injustice.
2. Gives power to the people.
As many of us have learned, or been reminded, in the last few weeks, to challenge power people must define their own politics and their own demands. Likewise, people need to be included in the process of data production, collection, and use — to be counted, and to be counted in the ways that matter most in explaining the unique realities they face.
Using the power of data to give power to people starts with data that includes people. This might mean mobilizing a historically undercounted, and thus under-resourced, community to participate in a census. Or maybe it means people collecting their own data, to highlight the realities of their lives. Or simply showing the systematic exclusion of half the world’s population from key statistics. Collecting numbers can be a radical act.
Data illuminates injustice only if it has been produced and presented in a way that allows it to do so. Data is power that must put people at the centre.
3. Limits its own power
The power of data has increased exponentially with the power of technology. Where people might have once been counted by a census taken every 10 years and then ignored altogether for the following nine, now data is collected on almost all of us, all of the time, through our phones, the cameras trained on us from the streets and from space, the clicks on the mouse, and the friends we speak to online. More data has meant more power for those who employ this data to influence decisions, and those who aren’t connected are more overlooked than ever.
The rise of big data has concentrated power in the hands of the few who control the firehoses that deliver it, and who have the skills to manipulate it. Unaccountable data has been used to feed racist algorithms, it can change “She said” to “He said” in Spanish to English translation, or it can help undermine democracy and rig elections.
It is time to take some power back. Governments have to stop sitting on their hands and regulate to limit the power of data holders and data users to do harm. Where they can’t or won’t, those who set international norms and standards must strive to uphold people’s rights in the face of harms caused by governments or companies abusing the power of data.
Data is power
People everywhere are challenging power — the power that oppresses them, that fails to protect them from a pandemic, that has burned up our shared planet.
People have had enough. We have a chance to create something better. The Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data is fighting for a world where the power of data is used to challenge injustice and make lives better. We know it can be done, from seeing the work of our 250 partners around the world over the past five years.
Data can illuminate injustice and light the way to that better world. But we also know that it won’t be done, unless we come together and deliberately make it so. If data is power, let’s make sure it is power that is independent, inclusive, and regulated in a way that protects people’s rights. Let’s make sure that the power of data supports the power of the people.