Seen as essential to understanding human life, data informs and shapes knowledge creation. It is powerful, political, and for generations has been a tool of oppression, generated and harvested by corporations, colonial regimes, and democracies alike to exploit the poor and marginalized.

The Bernstein Institute for Human Rights 2019 conference, Democratizing Data: Grassroots Strategies to Advance Human Rights seeks to bring these stories to light and draws together leading activists, lawyers, and academics from around world to highlight strategies that deepen the engagement of marginalized communities in understanding, collecting, shaping, and resisting the data that defines their lives. I have been invited to speak at one of the panel sessions for this conference on April 17-18, 2019.

The ability to define individuals and communities has remained in the pockets of the powerful, with marginalized communities excluded from the design, collection, and analysis of the data that represents their lived realities. As the process of datafication – the rendering our lives subject to computation and algorithm – has grown, the divide between those with the power to define and calculate and those subject to such processes has become ever more important. This exclusion is sometimes deliberate and by design – aimed at supporting public policies and financial transactions that expand state and corporate control. But often, this exclusion is born of unconscious, institutionalized bias, which is built into the very identities ascribed to individuals and communities who are categorized, tagged, and sorted by algorithms. The results are often the same: indigenous lands are seized for profit, refugee bodies are deemed illegal, vulnerable populations are rendered invisible, and communities of color are targeted for crimes they did not commit.

Despite datafication’s dark side, a movement is brewing at the grassroots. When data is demystified, deconstructed, and placed in the hands of affected communities it can be used to empower and fight injustice. Exerting control over processes of definition, computation, and machine learning, communities are turning the data gaze on those in power.