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