Youth perspectives on data: building trust and shaping a fair future

Young people at RightsCon having a conversation around Data Values. Credit: Janet McLaren

“What if people considered data as important as food?” 

That’s the question a young person asked during a recent youth-focused session at RightsCon in Costa Rica. It makes sense, they posited, to queue for food in crisis scenarios, to dedicate time and energy to producing and procuring food because it’s essential. But, data is clearly not essential in the same way. So, how do you get people to care? 

During RightsCon — an annual gathering of the technology and human rights communities— the Global Partnership team sat down with young people to discuss the Data Values Manifesto and their vision for a fair data future. During the session, more than 40 young digital rights activists engaged and discussed the challenges of creating data systems that are accountable to communities. In a later session, a small group of tech leaders and young people shared perspectives on challenges to a fair data future. 

Here’s are three things we heard from youth at RightsCon:

Building data confidence starts with getting people to care about data. That’s the challenge.

Youth reflected what we know from working on the Data Values campaign: “Data” is a vague and expansive concept. It’s hard to get people interested in data, especially when they have more important concerns. The food and data question in the intro is an example of this. 

Young people repeatedly pointed out that technology is too often discussed without any attention to the role of data. But, with data so deeply embedded in our everyday lives via social media platforms, online education, digital payment systems and digital services, the two cannot be separated. Youth in our session expressed concerns over the low levels of trust in technology, digital systems, and data as well as the corporations and governments that use the data to make money and take decisions at societal scale.

They also had ideas about how to increase levels of trust among communities impacted by data. Ensuring that affected people have a say in every step of data collection and production is essential. Organizations that collect data must also be transparent about what data can — and can’t — do to improve lives. Finally, young people agreed that communicating people’s rights regarding data is a key part of building confidence to engage with data.

Youth are missing opportunities to participate and engage meaningfully in data decisions

Young people see firsthand how digital systems and data affect people in their communities. They possess unique insights into the solutions required to challenge and rebalance power structures in data. However, we heard that they often do not have opportunities to speak in places of power or participate in meaningful engagements around topics central to the Data Values campaign, such as how data is collected, used, and managed. Young people require a chance to express their ideas in decision-making processes and support to put their creative and innovative solutions into action.

Young people feel a special burden to create fairer data systems

Despite often being excluded from data decision-making, young people feel they bear a disproportionate burden to realize a fair data future. Right now, “the burden is on civil society and researchers,” sectors that many young people are entering. Young people shared that they feel the sense to ensure that people are protected from harm, that issues are brought to light, and that communities have a say in data activities. They also continuously expressed the need to re-distribute the burden and share this responsibility across sectors. In conversation with representatives from technology companies, young people asked companies and governments to take on more of this responsibility.

Situating youth in the Data Values movement

Our mission at RightsCon last week was to facilitate personal connections to the Data Values agenda and empower people to take concrete steps to achieve it. While we can all recognize that data is important, concrete steps can be hard to articulate and vary by context. 

During the event, Restless Development’s Senior Youth Collective Coordinator shared a spoken word poem, published here with her permission. Jimena’s poem speaks to young people’s desire to see themselves represented in data and to shift power in how data is collected, managed, and used; the mission of the Data Values campaign. If you’d like to join the campaign, sign up for updates here. Here is Jimena’s poem: 

[UNTITLED]

We’re here to talk about data. 

Data is power. 

Data helps solve problems. 

Data helps us do better. 

So,

How much of who we are is found in the piles of data shaping the world?

How much of the needs and priorities of young people is that data serving?

The answer is probably: not enough.

Especially if you’re a woman.

If you’re queer.

If you’re young. 

If you’re not white.

If you’re…

the list goes on and on. 

Generating data that speaks about vulnerable populations is a political decision— 

one that no one seems to want to take.

So,

Do we hold any of that power?

Is there a part of us in there?

Will we be represented?

Is any of this enough?

We spent our life ticking boxes that ask who we are, 

But 

We’re so much more than the boxes we tick, 

Aren’t we?

So,

Let me shape my own box.

Maybe my box is more of a circle.

Where I hold my family and my friends.

Maybe my box is built as a community. 

Maybe my box hasn’t been invented yet.

Maybe my box has room for so many more to come.

How I define my box is how I create my own power.

Data should be spread like a weed.

Data should be available for everyone.

Data  should be transparent.

Data should give us power.

But this data doesn’t feel like me.

And if this data is not for me, 

Who is it for?

So,

If we don’t hold that power,

Who does?

Who are they?

How do we make them accountable?

How do we speak with them?

You know that little box in the internet that says

“I’m not a robot?”

Whenever I check that box I think: 

I’m sure I’m not, 

But 

Based on how we’re building this world, 

Are we sure our leaders are not? 

Written by: Jimena Cascante Matamoros (she/her/ella), Senior Youth Collective Coordinator, Restless Development

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