Community Data Organizing

Advocates, communities, and vulnerable populations are starting to use data trusts to build a new form of activism.

Nearly every day, there are new headlines about commercial services, data breaches, and security flaws that put vulnerable groups and individuals in harms way. But recently, we’re also starting to see something more promising: community organizers and advocates seizing on the power of data to protect the vulnerable, ensure safe access, and increase the visibility of serious problems.

One thing that Data for Black Lives, the Republican Party, and the Movement Cooperative all seem to agree on is that data is representation — and access matters. Each of these groups are building community organizing and governance infrastructure to help their communities define, deploy, and sustain the data that makes them visible. Each of these groups are negotiating access to, and use of, data to help their communities.They are data brokers for a cause — they are Community Data Organizers.

Community organizing is, and always has been, about relationships. Those relationships are often represented in other things — in money, in services, in rights, in liabilities — and now, those relationships are also represented in data. Data isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the singular focus of community organizers, but it can no longer be ignored, both as a source of opportunity to elevate voices and as a bulwark against deeply concerning risks.

Although there are many forms, data trusts are emerging as a flexible, inclusive, and legally significant way to build community governance of data. The work of community data organizing is not just outward-facing, it’s also to build intra-community capacity — ensuring that their communities understand their data footprint, shape the digital systems that define our shared future, and can trust the systems they participate in. Trusts also compel communities to consider the “What if” — they create the space and the accountability to plan for the worst. And, as little as we like to think about it, if we’re going to trust anything, we need to know how it behaves when things go wrong.

As Linnet Taylor (et. al) show in her book, Group Privacy, most of our systems to prevent data harms focus on individuals, ignoring the group dynamics in a wide range of harms. As Nathaniel Raymond notes, we often assume those groups based on demographics, but identity has many facets — as do the implications of their representation through data. Some credit scoring providers, for example, segment groups by behavior, social network, and even how you store contacts in your phone. The challenge isn’t just for the groups themselves, though, as James Scott points out in Seeing Like a State, systems are only able to engage with things they “see” — and most don’t “see” groups. That may because groups can be difficult to define, but it’s also because most systems don’t try to “see” them.

Data is making it easier for systems to “see” an exponentially increasing number of groups, at the same time that many groups are losing practical protections. One example is class action lawsuits, one of the few ways that groups can legally protect their rights and interests. The process of “class formation,” is, essentially, defining who is and is not affected by something the causes harm. Historically, that’s been hard to do — to prove a person was individually affected by a particular abuse, and thus part of the “class.” For example, in the recent Wells Fargo class action suits over account fraud, litigants had to prove that, not only were they Wells Fargo customers, but that the bank had created fraudulent accounts in their name. Data makes it easier to “see” the affected, but class action lawsuits are losing ground to forced arbitration waivers. In other words, just because data makes it easier for systems to “see” a group, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easier to protect that group. Often, that makes being “seen” a liability.

As a result, a new generation of community organizers are coming together to use data to protect and advocate on behalf of their communities. And many of them, whether school systems in California or civic activists and Microsoft in Germany, are using data trusts to establish formal governance processes to ensure that communities get to design and shape the way their data is used. Data trusts are legal contracts that create legal protections and fiduciary duties for organizations governing and brokering access to data.

Community data organizers use data to make sure that their communities are seen — and make it clear that the decisions we make in digital spaces have real costs. Community data organizers do the hard work of negotiating new protections, establishing shared norms, and reshaping the systems that don’t “see” them. At this point, their influence isn’t based on hard leverage, it’s based on a belief in the direction of history’s long arcs. And the first step is to be seen, and then use that to negotiate. Community data organizers use data trusts to ensure that when data makes communities visible, they can determine how.

Whatever you think of the role that data plays, it’s hard to argue that communities don’t, or shouldn’t, play a role. Communities are where we’re seen first, they’re where we start learning how to relate to the rest of the world, and they’re the support systems that help us when we don’t. Organizers help those communities work, both on their own and together. Data trusts are a powerful way to start building and structuring how communities work. With the right community data organizing, they may become how communities work together.