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

Becoming Structured

Feeding off the Pixels and Paintbrushes blog entry. Interested in that transition space between the analog and the digital. It’s funny, liminal has long been my favorite word, rivaled only recently by penumbral. More and more, I get to look at and live in that space. But now I see it more as the space of transition, not just as space between/at the edge.

So this thing happens, where we have formal structures, and the informal takes up the space between. As in the previous entry, each of these has its purpose and strengths and weaknesses.

This drawing based off a conversation with Galit, a cohort and roommate.

This drawing based off a conversation with Galit, a cohort and roommate.

As a reference, let’s take the limited work I’ve done with Occupy Relief efforts. I act as human API – if you need something from a formalized organization, including them getting out of the way, let me know. Then there are posts like this one, which is totally legit. But it puts me in a strange place of saying “I stand with you politically, but if you want this taken care of logistically, then let’s do that.” Something that keeps me in the relief space is how stark a relief differences are thrown into1. The choices that have to be made, and what is considered important when, and what cultural artifacts are created by those choices. A big part of how adaptable and powerful Occupy is, is based upon their NOT being defined nor legible. More and more I wonder how to make groups like FEMA legible to Occupy, rather than the other way round.

Reading Seeing Like A State, if you can’t tell. So very good. And then, I got to see Douglas Rushkoff speak about his new book, Present Shock. I think a HUGE part of these ideas overlap.

He equated the quest for the upper right quadrant in Capitalism with the Singularity as an example of existing world views being applied to new ways of considering the future. Rushkoff also brought up the feminist media theory of storylines and plots of male vs female orgasm – one is a single escalation and then easy bell curve down. The other being complex, multi-apex, etc. The only way we’ve known for things to be predictable is with the storyline we could track – the male orgasm model2.

Now we have the ability to see, track, understand the complexity of “actual” life3 through big data4 in a way that understands as it emerges, rather than forces adherence to a predictable, and thereby incomplete, model. And instead we are applying the same two-dimensional, simplistic pattern to it, and cutting off the long tails of a bell curve we’ve forced everything into. We’re bringing the legal system of documents and MAYBE spreadsheets to a database and RDF world5. We are not allowing ourselves the nuance of the paintbrush, digitized through the use of high-density pixels. We’re making ourselves bland and bucketed instead. A low-res snapshot of culture, of which the mere act of capturing makes us fulfill it more closely. Through quantified self and things like Prism, we’re stealing our own souls, at least as things are set up now6.

And this is why I’m doing the research I am. I’m tired of us lugging our unexamined baggage into the future we’re building. In the past, institutions were where knowledge was stored. Now it’s stored in us, in a sharable and duplicatable way. Seeing Rushkoff was inspiring, because he noted that yes, it’s difficult to exist in the crevices, but it’s also totally worthwhile. Video and audio are up already on the Berkman site.


It’s the trying to fit new things into old methods. We have to be willing to embrace some unpredictability in order for the lives of others to be more predictable to themselves. Crowds becoming “less predictable” to an outside view, but they’re becoming more self-determining. Let go of the reins and let it guide itself. Isn’t that the point of having power? To push it outwards?

1. See why penumbral is a favorite word?
2. Sidenote that I just tried to find links to the academic background on this, but guess how useful the internet is for THAT.
3. Or at least a closer approximation than we’ve had in the past.
4. Which would be the crowning, and crowing, triumph of Sociology.
5. And the database model isn’t The Best, it’s just “better” than what we’ve had before, in that it’s more self-defining and adaptable.
6. Damn kids get off my keyboard.