In a broad sense, data activism describes the process of groups that are traditionally marginalised and disadvantaged by dominant data regimes working to make alternate use of data and technology for their own self-defined political ends. As Milan and van der Velden (2016, p.62) describe:
“Data activism can be seen as a form of socio-political mobilization, as it brings people (and information and technology) together for some kind of action variably contentious in nature, and explicitly addressing, confronting, or engaging with datafication”.
In their new paper, Crooks and Currie consider what such data activism usually looks like in practice, the tensions that arise, and what alternate approaches might be more effective in supporting genuine political change and resistance.
Throughout their discussions, the authors make deliberate use of the term ‘minoritized’ to describe those groups most disadvantaged and oppressed by dominant uses of data in US society. In contrast to demographic labels such as ‘minority’, ‘under-represented’ or ‘underserved’, the term ‘minoritized’ foregrounds the unequal power relations that have historically seen the dominance of white male interests in determining and maintaining the public sphere.
From this perspective, the fact that US society is beset by white supremacy, economic precarity, heteronormativity, misogyny and heteronormativity is not an unintended consequence, but facets of society that are actively reproduced by the dominant political order. In other words, the idea of ‘minoritized’ groups recognises that these are inherent features (rather than unfortunate outcomes) of how US society is ordered and arranged.
The turn to grass-roots data activism
The deployment of numbers and statistics for activist ends has a long history preceding the recent rise of digital datafication. For example, Crooks and Currie look back to W.E.B Du Bois’s ‘data portraits’ from the beginning of the twentieth century as an early instance of politically-motivated reworkings of official data. Since then, community activism has been various data-driven efforts to tell alternate stories, highlight disparities and generally challenge the dominant use of ‘official statistics’. These tactics can involve the repurposing of existing data and the generation of new data – all with the intention of contending and disputing official accounts, drawing attention to underpublicized issues, and mobilising public option. Such uses of statistics as a resistant tool has been described as ‘statactvisim’ (Bruno et al 2014) – a neat term that encompasses the reuse of data about people and places by the communities that these data purport to represent.
There are many different instances of digital data being reused and repurposed in these ways – prompting growing enthusiasm for the democratic possibilities of grassroots ‘data activism’ amongst community groups around the world. Projects seeking to generate new forms of data will now often involve ‘citizen recordings’ and the ‘crowd-sourcing’ of new data-sets – where members of the public collaborate to measure and record evidence of issues otherwise not being recognised and documented by authorities. This can result in the production of data for community-produced maps, reports, dashboards and other documentation of local harms related to police violence, environmental degradation, provision of municipal services, and so on.
In particular, Crooks and Currie highlight the recent spate of local campaigners in US cities working to record all instances of racially-motivated police brutality – a prolonged process of “sifting through government documents such as police reports, court transcripts, and legal forms and adding this information to a database of officer-involved homicides in the community”. More mundane examples can be found in the educational sphere – for example, local parents banding together to document the depleted book stocks of libraries in disadvantaged areas.
The limits of data activism – ‘numbers will not save us ‘
Such grassroots examples of data activism are laudable, but based on a clear tension between being critical of current official uses of data while retaining a faith in the potential of other data to achieve more equitable ends. As such, these forms of data activism perpetuate an uncritical framing of data as means of evidencing and communication, and do not tackle the power relations inherent in the datafication of minoritized communities. As Crooks and Currie contend:
“Shifting community concerns into the register of the datalogical – a presumptive data positivism – poses risks to the very communities such a shift is supposed to empower”.
As such, Crooks and Currie offer a number of arguments why such grassroots data activism might notconstitute a good use of community time, effort and resources. One argument relates to the ‘burden of producing evidence’. These burdens take a variety of forms. At a personal level, any form of data work is repetitive, mentally exhausting, and potentially traumatic when (re)processing of data relating to violent harms perpetrated against one’s own local community. Moreover, at an institutional level, any willingness of communities to undertake data work therefore disincentivizes state authorities to begin to do so. Crooks and Currie note that state authorities are often happy to offload their recording and reporting responsibilities onto under-resourced community organisations.
Following this is the ‘burden of using evidence’. Here, Crooks and Currie note that the effective use of data usually demands high levels of technical expertise and technological resources and infrastructures. While community groups might be able to generate alternate forms of data, they are often unable to make full use of this data in the same ways as official statistical agencies. At best, the sectors of any community most likely to benefit and extract value from newly generated data are those who are better resourced. Crooks and Currie note that often the main beneficiaries of community-generated data are outside actors – such as non-governmental organization workers and data professionals.
Third, is the contention that data-intensive technologies run the risk of imposing their own purposes on political messages. In other words, engaging in the additional production, circulation and processing of data serves ultimately to direct more resources toward data industries that are ultimately set up to marginalise and oppress. In global infrastructural terms, community production of data directs additional resources toward the ‘data economy’ and ‘platform capitalism’ that underpin digital data, “rather than the redress of structural inequality”. In terms of local culture, the production of data-based ‘evidence’ might also work to distract from and devalue other forms of community knowledge and argument-building.
Perhaps Crooks and Currie’s most serious concern, is the point that the generation and analysis of data of any form is ultimately disadvantaging to minoritized groups, and ultimately cannot serve liberatory ends. The production of ‘crime’ statistics, health indicators, housing conditions and other similar metric, have long been used as means of producing ‘evidence’ of racial difference and racial inferiorities, and thereby encoding racial discrimination. Any attempt at data activism therefore faces a ‘double bind’ of digital data being “embedded in the structure of domination”. In this sense, the community-based production of additional forms of data is likely to only ever be little more than a self-inflicted form of what addition oppression. As Crooks and Currie conclude: “Even in cases where such technologies tout beneficial or ethical uses, what results is ‘the datafication of injustice’”.
The promise of agnostic data
Here, then, Crooks and Currie begin to sketch out alternate ways of appropriating data for community empowerment. In particular, they propose the idea of ‘agonistic data practices’. These does not attempt to use data to liaise with official agencies, to persuade policymakers to adopt alternate viewpoints, or ‘reconcile’ official accounts with community accounts. As Crooks and Currie reason, the realities of national and municipal governance do not involve official agencies acting logically in the interest of minoritized publics when faced with new evidence. Minoritized communities are simply not in a position to initiate productive data-driven dialogue with official institutions and governments. Instead, data is perhaps most productively used as means of provoking intra-community solidarity and awareness:
“… to mobilize antagonisms that produce solidarity among their community … us[ing] data-intensive technology as a powerful affective device for shoring up the community in a confrontation with the powers that be”.
The idea of agnostic data is therefore rooted in a conflict (rather than consensus) approach toward data activism – drawing on an understanding of unequal social orders having to be resisted and reformed through ongoing clashes of power. In other words, data is not a means through which agreements can be reached – rather, data is better seen as a means through which disagreements can be articulated and amplified.
Following the likes of Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau and the idea of ‘agonistic pluralism’, Crooks and Currie argue that community use of data is best approached as a stimulus for generative and productive antagonisms. This requires the use of data in an adversarial manner to highlight difference, raise (rather than resolving) questions, and provoke grassroots political involvement and engagement with alternative futures.
Crooks and Currie conclude with a couple of alternate suggestions of approaching community appropriation of data – both of which move beyond the idea of data being representational, and instead look toward data as ‘supra-representational’. First, they raise the idea of using data as a means of affective stimulation – “enflame[ing] political differences” and mobilising communities to begin to act on their passions and interests. Here, Crooks and Currie draw on examples of evocative data sloganeering such as ‘We are the 99 percent” or the guerrilla projection of ‘climate countdown’ timers onto government buildings. These examples illustrate the deployment of data to convey a sense of urgency, fear and affiliation against a common adversary, as well as acting as an invitation to action.
Second, Crooks and Currie raise the idea that data might also be used in an ‘aesthetic’ manner as part of the construction of narratives and stories. As Crooks and Currie conclude, in this manner:
“… data should be understood in the context of culturally available elements of story, as props that can be used to create a compelling scene, a happy ending, a devious villain, and so on. Agonistic data practices can amplify and sharpen a community’s narrative. Data makes for good stories, and stories .. are vital to agonistic politics”
These alternate approaches therefore raise a new spectrum of possible forms of ‘school’ data for our own DSS research project. How might data be deployed along agnostic lines to agitate for the decolonialisation of the curriculum, to raise awareness of teachers’ increasing work-intensification, or similar other injustices and unfairnesses that abound in schools? The idea of data not being used to provide better answers, but instead being used to provoke better questions and solidarity is certainly worth pursuing further in our discussions of the data-driven futures of education.
Bruno, I, Didier, E. and Vitale, T. (2014) Statactivism: forms of action between disclosure and affirmation. Partecipazione e Conflitto: The Open Journal of Sociopolitical Studies 7 (2):198–220
Crooks, R. and Currie, M. (2021): Numbers will not save us: agonistic data practices, The Information Society [forthcoming]
Milan, S. and van der Velden, L. 2016. The alternative epistemologies of data activism. Digital Culture & Society 2 (2):57–74