Algorithms for Enforcement or for Data-Driven Introspection?

Many organizations (official or grassroots) have objectives which exceed their capacity, i.e., they have fewer resources than they think they need. In order to either better place limited resources, or to improve processes generally, some of these organizations have taken to collecting data about their objectives and use of resources. For a drought management agency in the Horn of Africa, this might have to do with the location of agripastoral communities and their access to water. For a school district in Michigan, this might be test scores or (better yet) teacher attendance. By documenting historical data and changes linked to actions taken, an understanding of whether or not a goal (equal representation, access to resources, etc) is being reached is more grounded in reality. Data, like all things, is political. What data is collected, how it is collected, where it is stored, to whom it is visible, and who gets to act on it can re-centralize power or become mechanisms of accountability and community empowerment.

This post explores how police departments have been collecting data about the location and types of arrests made as a way to track how much crime is happening in a certain place, as a way of placing their limited resources (cops and their weapons) more accurately (to their eyes). But of course their data has to do with arrests, not crime, and their definition of crime is still based on enforcement of law. This use of force, already untenable, can be seen by some as “unbiased” when based on data. Here we explore why this is not only inaccurate but will further embed systemic racial bias, while maintaining that data collection and subsequent action can be a useful thing when led by the communities themselves. Here, we specifically address questions of large sets of data against which algorithms can be run, and how we can make choices to maximize benefit and mitigate damage of these operations while transitioning from the world we’re in to the world we want.

I anticipate the audience for this blog is more acutely aware of things like state-sponsored surveillance, malware used by abusers to further control others, or circumvention tools than the usual crowd. But there is more to the technology and abilities of networks than just these components. Let’s talk about the data that networks generate, the algorithms by which that data is navigated, and how data is acted upon. One end of the arbitrary spectrum of action is enforcement – an external party exerting force in order to maintain the rule of law. The other end is data-driven introspection – an individual or group of people generating data for tracking changes within their own control. This article explores how to understand and increase the likelihood of just actions taken based on data and algorithms. Continue reading

Remembering Normal

Most of my corners of the internet are currently filled with rage. One of the ongoing cries is “this is not normal.” It’s true, it’s not. So let’s take a moment to remember what normal has been for the past bit. This is to both balance out the past blog post, and in light of great blog posts like this one about mental health and long fights. Much of my “normal” has to do with where I live and what I look like. I still find it important to talk about them because these levels of freedom are something I actively fight to make available for others on a daily basis in my own flawed and insufficient ways.

  • Normal has been a high likelihood that overhead helicopters etc are for traffic reporting.
  • Normal has been walking in my neighborhood safely.
  • Normal has been making aggressively questioning remarks about government, governance, and other systems of power in public and having lively debate and no concern for my long-term well-being.
  • Normal has been visiting nearly every continent in 5 years and only getting heavy scrutiny thrice, including when soft-packing through TSA.
  • Normal has been asking friends to move to encrypted channels and no one being targeted for those moves.
  • Normal has been holding hands with a girlfriend and a boyfriend on a street corner and only getting occasional side-eye.
  • Normal has been openly attending talks from activists in other countries.
  • Normal has been experiencing shock when I see enforcement agents with semi-automatic weapons in other countries (because they don’t where I live).
  • Normal has been publishing under my own name.
  • Normal has been making an appointment for, and then getting, an IUD from my doctor, and it being covered by insurance.
  • Normal has been, and will always be, a slow fight towards more justice and more equality.

And so much more. Remember what is normal.

Same as it ever was

Hi, friends.

I’ve gotten into a few conversations recently with friends for whom this election has deeply shaken their world view. They wonder how — how — this could have happened. And how I can be so damn calm?! Instead of talking through this over and over again, I’m documenting it here.

I am not surprised by Trump winning the election.

A bee once flew into my motorcycle helmet while I was at speed on the highway and I was able to calmly and safely pull over and get it out without either of us losing our lives. My being calm and unsurprised is not an indicator of how terrified I am for my friends, for humanity, and for the planet in this slide towards fascism all over.

I know Trump supporters

People I have cared about for much of my life – and continue to care for – find promise in Trump. I think this is due to their feelings of disempowerment, but they have their own reasons as well. They are just as racist and sexist as anyone in a racist and sexist culture is. Which is to say, at least a little bit. They also, like most/all of my radical and liberal friends, feel disconnected from our governance systems. Sorry to go all Steven Universe on y’all, but I see these folk as potential allies in a very long fight, not as The Enemy. We’re all people, and anything I fight to achieve for my friends (legal recognition of love, freedom of speech, safety from harm) I also fight to achieve for these folk, because human rights apply to everyone.

Our systems are set up for this

Friends are under threat of violence. Our planet is under threat of no longer supporting human life. Friends of mine are under threat of funding being yanked, at an organizational or personal level. These are not new challenges, it is simply that we were mildly comfortable with who was at the helm in a haphazard and ineffective attempt to avoid these issues. Until a system can truly have any person in a role without the output of the system changing, it isn’t stable and maybe shouldn’t be relied upon. And unless a government is fulfilling its basic role to provide baseline human needs through collective action and resource management, it ain’t a government I’m much into. I say in a nominally self-aware way as a white lady in SF who has tons of privilege.

These are long standing issues

There are many social justice organizations which have been long working on problems of systemic violence such as racism and sexism through the means available to them. Those who understand the above point likely haven’t shifted what it is they’re up to all that much based on this election, although we may be working with more urgency than before.

What’s to be done?

When the Snowden revelations came out, some corners of the infosec community shrugged and said “yeah, and?” It was a huge lost opportunity. Suddenly, people care about your cause. This is, as they say, a “teachable moment.” Use this time to onboard people to your cause. Use it to teach and embrace and build solidarity.

Live your life

I don’t believe in needing the external morality of religion to guide my actions (though religion is just fine), and I don’t believe I need a government to tell me how to behave, either. I will continue looking out for my fellow humans, performing small acts of human decency, and wading into fights if needed. I hope you’ll do the same, or be even more present than you have been before. This everyday action thing is also the only way I’ve found to be sustainable in my long years of action.

Join the fight

We’re glad you’re here. Hello. Welcome. There are tons of groups already doing excellent work. Please find and contribute to one of them.

Step outside of your comfort zone

Try listening first, and then acting. Try understanding someone you dislike. Try seeing someone you’ve never looked at before. We’re in this together, regardless of how it shakes out.

And most of all: <3

Acting Together

Regardless of how or if you voted, if the past few days have inspired you to take action but aren’t sure how, here is a template to get started.


Not loading for you? It’s likely due to the chat on the riseup pad. Here‘s a direct link to the pad.

We’ll be hosting one this upcoming Tuesday evening in San Francisco. Let me know if you’d like to know details.

Politics and Death

This was co-written with Fin

When Mihi died, we had some problems beyond just the holes in our chests and the salt in our eyes. 0) He was part of many communities – the medical community, the hacker community, the data journalism community, and many more. We wanted to create a site where these communities could come together, which was complicated as we are 1) activists of one flavor or another, and so most of us aren’t on facebook, 2) facebook memorial pages squick us the fuck out anyway1 2, and 3) there aren’t other accessible options out there for collaborative memorial pages3. Continue reading

Politicized Humanitarianism

This post is a collaboration between Margaret Killjoy and yours truly. If you find yourself in need of a co-author or ghostwriter, or just generally like to be challenged and your hopes dashed and lifted at the same time, please reach out to them.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” Desmond Tutu

Four years into the Syrian Civil War, with no end in sight, the Syrian refugee crisis is just getting worse and worse. More than four million people have fled their homes and sought refuge in Turkey, Europe, and throughout the world.

There are wonderful grassroots initiatives (most too informal to even call “organizations”) who are on the ground in Europe helping Syrian refugees navigate the nightmare they’ve been thrust into (bureaucracy and xenophobia) after the nightmare they’ve escaped (the Syrian civil war). But as crucial as it is to meet these people’s immediate needs, it will take more than emergency aid to solve the source of this crisis and ones like it. It will take radical, political solutions.

Relief organizations and related nonprofits could position themselves to advocate and act towards / in alignment with those solutions. Which is to say: we need humanitarianism, yes, but if we’re going to find long-term solutions, we also need politicized humanitarianism.

When we speak of people and groups being politicized, we don’t mean campaigning and/or voting for elected officials every few years. Instead, to be political means to do work that addresses the very way our society—and its decision-making—is structured. For many of us, to be political also means to embrace the feminist concept that the personal is political—that the way we interact with one another one-on-one cannot be divorced from the broader structures of social control. Continue reading

…and yet…

At Cascadia.JS in 2014, I picked up a tshirt from the freebie pile. It’s pink. I know — I was also shocked about this, but the quote on the front was so good I had to go for it. “We don’t know what we’re doing either.” On the back is a subtle “&yet” which I learned was an open source consulting company (ish). Neat! — humility, a culture that accepts shirts which are both pink and comfortable, and a nuanced logo. I especially love wearing this shirt in academic and tech-centric situations.

A few months ago, Case asked my consent to be put in touch with someone on the &yet team — they had a conference coming up, and had suggested I speak. Our phone conversation was brief, but it sounded both fun and values-based, so I said yes (a rarer and rarer thing for me these days), and so I spent Wed/Thurs/Fri of last week in Richland, Washington. If interested, here are my drawings of others’ talks, my slide deck, and the paper I referenced.

It is now easily one of my favorite large social experiences. Music, art, and story were woven throughout the conference, all evoking self-reflection on our role in the path the world takes. It was already populated by some of my favorite people in this space (the aforementioned case, plus ben, jden, kawandeep, etc), and the textcapade starting weeks in advance, recieving letters from another character in the story by mail, all playing through these struggles, had me jazzed up long before the event.

The talks were a beautiful mix of art demonstrations, hopeful distribution structures, empathy arcs, and design philosophies. Inclusion was constantly present, and never for its own sake, but rather from a deep understanding that these are the voices that make up the world. The care &yet took of attendees (and encouraged us to take for each other) opened space for some rather heart-wrenching moments. Please, check out the talks when they go up.

While all of this is amazing, I want to talk about the trust and responsibility that &yet placed in the attendees. The storyline was a surprisingly nuanced version of one of my own ongoing internal battles — burn it all down, or patch to save what we can. (The mixed-mode system work is my attempt at making these transitions graceful, by the by). At no point was a clear value judgement imposed upon the story, or implied to the players. The textcapade transitioned into a sort of backchannel for actors in the parts of those sending the messages at points during the conference, and this archetypical internal battle continued to be played out there as well as by stage actors between talks.
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What’s the Catch?

Chaos Communications Camp is something that happens once every four years, and it is My Favorite. It’s a few thousand hackers etc camping together in Germany. There’s brightly colored hair everywhere, and a slowly improving gender ratio, and stickers on laptops, and a gigabit to the tent. There are disco balls in trees, and competing soundscapes of German techno and old rock and roll or hiphop, and a giant sparkley rocket ship called Fairy Dust. I’m camping with Norton’s Obscure Phoggy Embassy (the manifestation of a few Bay Area hackerspaces), which is successfully trolling much of the rest of Camp through their assumption we’re being colonial (because Emperors), as well as having an inflated shark Rubin‘s been shouting at people to jump over. Also, NOPE attire are booty shorts.

I was invited to sit on a panel called “What’s the Catch?” put together by nat from Open Technology Institute. Josh (also from OTI), Kate (from tor), and myself were the three panelists. We each attempted to speak for about five minutes, and then we focused on questions from the audience. Our topic was an ongoing debate in infosec (and other) circles : is it possible to take money from governments and corporations while maintaining a project’s integrity? I vote yes, if you work really hard at it. The talk will eventually be up on the CCC wiki (and I’ll likely post it here once it’s up) but for now, this is the rant I put together when I was considering how to concisely state why I think this is the case.

In relation to this, and the other existential questions which I continually struggle with, I refer often to a quote from the Zapatistas, one of the few groups to maintain a governance structure after their revolution: “Caminando preguntamos,” which roughly translates to “we walk while asking questions.” To me, it means that we should move, but let’s analyze as we do. Let’s be in both critique and solidarity with each other.

I’m going to attempt to touch on three points, alliterated for your memory: perfection, pluralism, paternalism.
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Accountability in Response

I’ve started writing about response over on the Aspiration blog, but this one still has cursewords in it, and is very much in my own language, so I figured I’d post it here first.

The problems our planet is facing are becoming more extreme. People and politics mean there are larger populations more densely packed in cities. Nomadic populations traveling along their historical routes are now often crossing over arbitrary (have you *seen* some of the country lines people in Western countries have drawn in places they might never have even been!?) political boundaries, making them refugees or illegal immigrants. Climate change means more and more extreme events are impacting those populations. We have *got* to get our shit together.

In all this, the people who have been historically marginalized often become even more so as those in power see scarcity encroaching on their livelihoods. But the ability to hold people accountable in new ways (through things like social media), as well as (I hope) a real awareness and effort in the long arc towards equality, means there are groups of people seeking new ways to better allocate resources to those most affected by these events. Often, these groups are also in a post-scarcity mentality — that, when we work together, wisely, we can do a whole lot more with a whole lot less. These are folk who think we *can* reach zero poverty and zero emissions (within a generation). These are the folk who see joy in the world, and possibility.

The resource allocation and accountability necessary for these transitory steps towards a world that can survive and even thrive won’t happen in a vacuum. In the organizations, governments, and grassroots efforts there are entire supply chains, and ways of listening (and to whom), and self-reflexive mechanisms to consider. In these are embedded corruption, and paternalism, and colonialism. In these, too, are embedded individuals who have been Fighting The Good Fight for decades. Who have added useful checks and amplifiers and questions. It’s into this environment we step. It is, at its core, like any other environment. It has History.

It’s in this context that I’m so excited about Dialling Up Resilience. It taps into questions of efficacy in programming by using and contributing to metrics for success in building resilience. It assumes good faith in policy makers and implementers by offering up data for them to do their jobs better. It protects against bad actors by providing granular, speedy data aggregated enough to protect data providers but transparent enough to be clear when a program is working (or not, if those we’re assuming good faith in don’t actually deserve that). And, my favorite part — instead of contorting and posturing about what makes people able to bounce back faster after a climate-related shock… we just ask them. Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that. But the core is there.

We’ll be working with a few different groups in Kenya, including the National Drought Management Authority (and their Ending Drought Emergencies program) and UNDP on their existing surveying initiatives, as well as groups like GeoPoll (SMS), Twaweza (call center), and Kobo (household) on stand-alone surveys about how communities estabilish and track their own resilience. If we get the grant extension, we’ll work more directly with communities using tools like Promise Tracker and Landscape (a digitized version of Dividers & Connectors) to be closer to their own data, and to subsequently be able to have more agency over their own improvement as well as accountability.

What’s also exciting is that our means and our ends match. I was recently in Nairobi for a stakeholder workshop with not only the project partners, but also with the organizations which would eventually make use of the data. We’ve been conducting community workshops to test our basic assumptions and methods against reality, as well as to be sure community voice is at the core of each component we consider. We’ve thrown a lot out… and added some amazing new things in. We’re hoping to break down the gatekeeper dynamic of accessing communities in the Horn of Africa, and we want to be coextensive with existing programs (rather than supplanting them). It’s feminist and it’s development and I’m kind of fucking thrilled.

Professorship

My students just gave their final presentations. Their projects are the most important part of this entry, but because of narrative arcs, come last. If you read only one section of this, please read that.

Last summer, I was looking for more paid work. A job posted to some list I’m on, for a Digital Storytelling position at Brown. It didn’t require a degree, surprisingly, and I thought I’d take a shot. I sent some of the digital animation and community work I’m proudest of, and crossed my fingers. They wrote back to tell me it wasn’t exactly digital storytelling, but it was something, and we should chat.

And so I embarked on the rather bizarre adventure of creating a syllabus (so many thanks and props to Jo, Debbie, and Susan in this especially), and of planning my life around being in Providence every Thursday. At least. I do, in theory, live t/here. Each week, I would stay until the last second of the Civic lunch talk, endure the anxiety of attempting to catch a very exact train to Providence (and sometimes pay the cost for the Acela which departed slightly later), walk or cab to the Nightingale Brown House, and teach a class.
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