Local activism is the foundation of a fair data future

It’s happened again. Last week, Human Rights Watch published a report condemning the Hungarian government’s misuse of personal data to promote a political campaign. The data, which people submitted to access social services such as for vaccines and tax purposes, was used in “a betrayal of trust and an abuse of power,” according to the report

This is only the most recent in a long series of events that have eroded people’s trust in data and those who produce and use it. Since the beginning of the Data Values Project, it’s been clear that lack of trust is serious challenge to unlocking the potential of data and technology. We’ve also heard time and again that local activism is key to shifting power structures in how data is collected, used, and managed.

“For too long, data and knowledge creation have been the authority of the privileged few,” explains Mayuri Dhumal, a writer and activist from India. Mayuri is among seven grassroots activists selected to be Data Values Advocates to promote discussion and activism around addressing local abuses and harms in data and rebuilding people’s confidence in data systems.  

The value of grassroots action in creating a fairer data future

Local and community action are essential to advocating for trustworthy and equitable data systems. The new Data Values Advocates cohort brings together grassroots activists from Europe, Africa, Asia, and North and South America, who are working to address challenges within their communities and to shift attitudes and approaches to data. 

The 2022 cohort of Data Values Advocates.

Each Data Values Advocate has been active in local grassroots advocacy. Mayuri, for example, has focused on bringing knowledge of language, gender, caste, and ethnicity from the margins to the mainstream.

As a policy advocate, data scientist, storyteller, and social development professional from Kaduna State, Nigeria, Yazid Mikail says he’s committed to increasing awareness and action on data literacy and use from the community to national level. 

“Data is key to solving every social problem. Communities, policymakers, and stakeholders must learn how to use data effectively to create solutions to the issues affecting their communities,” explains Yazid.

From its inception, the Data Values Project has sought to include as many diverse perspectives as possible in creating a vision for what changes must be made, both to protect people from harm and to take full advantage of the power of data and technology.

“Community-led action is essential to creating data systems that help and empower people instead of harming and excluding them,” Kate Richards explained in announcing the Advocates last week. 

People who are directly impacted by problems that stem from data activities are the ones who are most qualified to speak about them and who often have knowledge and ideas about how to solve them.

For example, a lack of data generated by and for people with disabilities creates additional barriers in society and leaves people even further behind. Angeline Lodi, a disability rights activist and Data Value Advocate, told attendees of a recent community event* that building disability-inclusive data systems are key.

“For instance, when we do not have disaggregated data on how many children with disabilities are in school… we cannot make well-informed decisions or improve current situations,” she said. “Disaggregated data must be able to explore different characteristics and, importantly, show the levels of high inequalities that exist between persons with disabilities and those without disabilities.” 

Learning—and re-learning—together

The seven advocates will advance the Data Values campaign and support others, especially those from marginalized communities, to push for a fairer data future. The program is part of an effort to unite people who have for too long been on the margins of data activities and decisions to create and demand change.

What these advocates and many others around the world are doing—localizing and building support for the messages in the #DataValues Manifesto—has been going on for much longer than this campaign. What the Data Values Advocates and many other people and organizations involved in working to realize the #DataValues Manifesto are doing in the coming year will be a source of inspiration and ideas to help guide efforts to shape a fairer data future. 

*The Data Values campaign is also hosting an ongoing series of community events to explore topics and issues related to Data Values and to facilitate conversations around putting this agenda into action. (Anyone can join these online events. Sign-up to learn more.) 

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