how to challenge power differentials with data
August 27, 2020 11:01 AM   Subscribe

Data science is a form of power. It has been used to expose injustice, improve health outcomes, and topple governments. But it has also been used to discriminate, police, and surveil. This potential for good, on the one hand, and harm, on the other, makes it essential to ask: Data science by whom? Data science for whom? Data science with whose interests in mind? The narratives around big data and data science are overwhelmingly white, male, and techno-heroic. In Data Feminism, Catherine D'Ignazio and Lauren Klein present a new way of thinking about data science and data ethics—one that is informed by intersectional feminist thought. Read and download Data Feminism on MIT Press's open access platform.

Introduction: Why Data Science Needs Feminism
Feminism begins with a belief in the “political, social, and economic equality of the sexes,” as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the term—as does, for the record, Beyoncé. And any definition of feminism also necessarily includes the activist work that is required to turn that belief into reality. In Data Feminism, we bring these two aspects of feminism together, demonstrating a way of thinking about data, their analysis, and their display, that is informed by this tradition of feminist activism as well as the legacy of feminist critical thought.

Chapter 1: The Power Chapter
Principle #1 of Data Feminism is to Examine Power. Data feminism begins by analyzing how power operates in the world.

Chapter 2: Collect, Analyze, Imagine, Teach
Principle #2 of Data Feminism is to Challenge Power. Data feminism commits to challenging unequal power structures and working toward justice.

Chapter 3: On Rational, Scientific, Objective Viewpoints from Mythical, Imaginary, Impossible Standpoints
Principle #3 of Data Feminism is to Elevate Emotion and Embodiment. Data feminism teaches us to value multiple forms of knowledge, including the knowledge that comes from people as living, feeling bodies in the world.

Chapter 4: “What Gets Counted Counts”
Principle #4 of Data Feminism is to Rethink Binaries and Hierarchies. Data feminism requires us to challenge the gender binary, along with other systems of counting and classification that perpetuate oppression.

Chapter 5: Unicorns, Janitors, Ninjas, Wizards, and Rock Stars
Principle #5 of Data Feminism is to Embrace Pluralism. Data feminism insists that the most complete knowledge comes from synthesizing multiple perspectives, with priority given to local, Indigenous, and experiential ways of knowing.

Chapter 6: The Numbers Don’t Speak for Themselves
Principle #6 of Data Feminism is to Consider Context. Data feminism asserts that data are not neutral or objective. They are the products of unequal social relations, and this context is essential for conducting accurate, ethical analysis.

Chapter 7: Show Your Work
Principle #7 of Data Feminism is to Make Labor Visible. The work of data science, like all work in the world, is the work of many hands. Data feminism makes this labor visible so that it can be recognized and valued.

Conclusion: Now let's multiply
The core workers [tech companies] rely on have an extraordinary amount of bargaining power.” They also have messaging power, interruption power, and subversion power. How might tech workers marshal these strengths to mass-occupy digital infrastructure? To teach algorithms to “work to rule” in the style of assembly-line slow-downs? To slow the flow of everyday capitalism to gather attention? To channel digital solidarities back into physical spaces and human relationships?

Our values and our metrics for holding ourselves accountable
We created this document as we began the writing of this book and included it as part of the manuscript draft that was posted online as part of the open peer review process. We were prompted to write it because of work on a prior project with equity consultant Jenn Roberts of Versed Education, and because of the values statements (and related statements of principles) published by groups such as the University of Maryland’s African American History, Culture, and Digital Humanities Initiative (AADHum) and the University of Delaware’s Colored Conventions Project. From these projects, we saw how statements of shared values can become important orientation points, guiding internal decisions at challenging junctures and making ethical commitments public and transparent.

Auditing Data Feminism, by Isabel Carter
In the interest of remaining accountable to the values statement for this book, the authors tasked me with performing an audit of all the individuals, projects, and organizations referenced in Data Feminism. Quantifying these references provided important information about which perspectives were being included in the work and to what extent. At the same time, this process presented difficult-to-answer questions about identification and classification. Therefore, this methods statement will serve to explain how we approached those questions and what our answers were.

Acknowledgment of Community Organizations

Many community organizations are already modeling the principles of data feminism that we have described in this book. As part of our continued efforts to share power, we are redirecting a portion of royalties from this book to two of these organizations that have significance to the authors. We encourage you to seek out these organizations, engage with them on social media and in real life, and consider how you might contribute to their work.

(Buying options from MIT Press)
posted by ChuraChura (12 comments total) 85 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, this looks fascinating. It'll take me some time to approach it with the attention it deserves, but I'm glad to be able to put it in my to-read list. Thanks for sharing it.
posted by biogeo at 11:08 AM on August 27 [2 favorites]

I love this book! It is the core textbook in the graduate seminar I teach in critical algorithm studies. These scholars are both very careful thinkers and are extremely generous academics (they ran a weekly reading group of Data Feminism during covid that is archived on D'Ignazio's YouTube page). I encourage people to think about getting a print copy because the hardback version is just beautiful, but it is excellent that there is an open access version available. That makes it easier to assign as a textbook, and easier for it to reach more people!
posted by k8lin at 11:45 AM on August 27 [10 favorites]

With its own community & hashtag on twitter #datafeminism
posted by lalochezia at 12:00 PM on August 27 [3 favorites]


First of all, I love open information, and I love that this is open in so many ways, from fully downloadable content to lovely clickable footnotes.

Second, I love that they not only acknowledge that "Many community organizations are already modeling the principles of data feminism that we have described in this book," they also are donating some of the royalties from the book to two selected organizations. And I love that they highlight this "As part of our continued efforts to share power" - I feel like sharing power is such an important nascent trend, and having people talk about it helps normalize it.

Third, I love the examples. I've just been skimming the first chapter, but all the real-world examples - from Serena Williams to the way Amazon had to abandon their job-applicant algorithm because it was making bias WORSE - are clear and useful and make the subject so much more concrete.

I could go on, but first I'll have to read more of the thing.

Thank you so much for posting this, ChuraChura - this is really important and really wonderful.
posted by kristi at 12:06 PM on August 27 [3 favorites]

Wayback Machine MIT Press link (one in the description is broken for me)
posted by brewsterkahle at 1:25 PM on August 27

Are they connected up with Data for Black Lives, also? Looks really interesting!
posted by eviemath at 1:44 PM on August 27 [1 favorite]

UK journalist/illustrator Mona Chalabi is another woman doing fantastic work in this area
posted by crocomancer at 1:10 AM on August 28

A good podcast along these lines is Data & Society.
posted by ropeladder at 7:03 AM on August 28

I love this book!!
There's a great series of videos from the book club the authors' ran
posted by jebs at 12:46 PM on August 28

might also check out caroline criado perez's invisible women - "Data determine how resources are allocated. Bad data lead to bad resource allocation. Criado Perez hammers home this message with example after example, and... comprehensively makes the case that seemingly objective data can actually be highly male-biased, and that public spending, health, education, the workplace and society in general are worse off as a result. Policymakers everywhere should take heed."
Imagine a world where your phone is too big for your hand, where your doctor prescribes a drug that is wrong for your body, where in a car accident you are 47% more likely to be seriously injured, where every week the countless hours of work you do are not recognised or valued.

If any of this sounds familiar, chances are that you’re a woman.

Invisible Women shows us how, in a world largely built for and by men, we are systematically ignoring half the population. It exposes the gender data gap – a gap in our knowledge that is at the root of perpetual, systemic discrimination against women, and that has created a pervasive but invisible bias with a profound effect on women’s lives.

From government policy and medical research, to technology, workplaces, urban planning and the media, Invisible Women reveals the biased data that excludes women.

Award-winning campaigner and writer Caroline Criado Perez brings together for the first time an impressive range of case studies, stories and new research from across the world that illustrate the hidden ways in which women are forgotten, and the impact this has on their health and well-being. In making the case for change, this powerful and provocative book will make you see the world anew.
also btw...
-Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez – a world designed for men
-Caroline Criado-Perez On Data Bias And 'Invisible Women'
-Why Everything From Transit to iPhones Is Biased Toward Men
-Invisible Women - 99% Invisible
-Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias In A World Designed For Men
posted by kliuless at 12:01 AM on August 29 [1 favorite]

“Invisible Women” was an interesting choice of title by the author, considering all the women she excludes from her feminism.
posted by polytope subirb enby-of-piano-dice at 9:28 AM on August 29 [5 favorites]

God damn it why do TERFs have to go and ruin everything?
posted by LizBoBiz at 1:51 AM on August 31 [3 favorites]

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