How Data Can Map and Make Racial Inequality More Visible (If Done Responsibly)

The GovLab
Jun 8 · 13 min read

The piece is supplemented by a crowdsourced listing of Data-Driven Efforts to Address Racial Inequality.


  • The GovLab developed this living reflection document with diverse input from our network to help identify the opportunities, risks, challenges, and lessons about the use of data to make racial inequalities more visible and the ways it may be systematically and collaboratively countered.

For any reactions, concerns, suggestions, and recommendations: contact Stefaan G. Verhulst, Co-Founder of The GovLab at sverhulst @


Racism is a systemic issue that pervades every aspect of life in the United States and around the world. In recent months, its corrosive influence has been made starkly visible, especially on Black people. Many people are hurting. Their rage and suffering stem from centuries of exclusion and from being subject to repeated bias and violence. Across the country, there have been protests decrying racial injustice. Activists have called upon the government to condemn bigotry and racism, to act against injustice, to address systemic and growing inequality.

Institutions need to take meaningful action to address such demands. Though racism is not experienced in the same way by all communities of color, policymakers must respond to the anxieties and apprehensions of Black people as well as those of communities of color more generally. This work will require institutions and individuals to reflect on how they may be complicit in perpetuating structural and systematic inequalities and harm and to ask better questions about the inequities that exist in society (laid bare in both recent acts of violence and in racial disadvantages in health outcomes during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis). This work is necessary but unlikely to be easy. As Rashida Richardson, Director of Policy Research at the AI Now Institute at NYU notes:

“Social and political stratifications also persist and worsen because they are embedded into our social and legal systems and structures. Thus, it is difficult for most people to see and understand how bias and inequalities have been automated or operationalized over time.”

We believe progress can be made, at least in part, through responsible data access and analysis, including increased availability of (disaggregated) data through data collaboration. Of course, data is only one part of the overall picture, and we make no claims that data alone can solve such deeply entrenched problems. Nonetheless, data can have an impact by making inequalities resulting from racism more quantifiable and inaction less excusable.

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In seeking to reflect upon ways that data can make a difference, The GovLab used a rapid-research methodology to compile a list of topic areas below where data and data analysis could help illustrate where racial inequality exists in the United States and support evidence-based efforts to promote equity. Given recent events, it focuses mainly on how racism harms Black communities.

Resulting projects might use data to improve existing policies, identifying those that are reductive or unable to address systemic failures. By using data to improve situational awareness of a problem, identify causes and effects in racist incidents, and predict outcomes or assessing policy impact, those committed to anti-racism can develop better solutions to the challenges Black communities face every day.

Needless to say, this rapid topic map is simply a scan of the issues and a basic overview of the situation. It is far from comprehensive. We realize racism is an enormous, odious, and deeply entrenched problem that has persisted in the United States since its founding. We also recognize that many in The GovLab operate from a position of power and privilege that require us to listen to those who do not and amplify their views. Both communities of color and white allies can take action to advance racial justice.

Prioritizing any of these topics will also require increased community engagement and participatory agenda setting. Likewise, we are deeply conscious that data can have a negative as well as positive impact and that technology can perpetuate racism when designed and implemented without the input and participation of minority communities and organizations. While our report here focuses on the promise of data, we need to remain aware of the potential to weaponize data against vulnerable and already disenfranchised communities. In addition, (hidden) biases in data collected and used in AI algorithms, as well as in a host of other areas across the data life cycle, will only exacerbate racial inequalities if not addressed.

Topics where data could make racial injustices more visible and advance understanding of its depth and causes and ways through which it can be systematically addressed

With these caveats in mind, we find that the following areas might be most amenable to improvements in how to leverage data to develop racially equitable solutions and approaches:

Criminal Justice Inequalities

  1. Resource Misallocation: Communities of color have less financial and institutional support for justice-related activities than their white counterparts. Fewer crimes are solved. Victims of crime receive less support. There are fewer programs that offer alternatives to incarceration. These inequalities are not new but the result of institutional divestment and policy choices driven by multiple factors, including radicalized cultural pathologies. While data offers no easy solution to this problem, driven by bad actors, it can provide tools to activists and media to expose those who facilitate racism and provide an evidentiary basis for groups to demand change in their cities, states, and country. Indeed, the Washington Post has compiled an original database of homicide arrest data from the United States’s 50 largest cities to demonstrate how little many cities invest in solving homicides with minority victims and the consequences of those decisions.

Economic Inequalities:

  1. Income Inequality: There are major racial disparities in family wealth resulting from the legacies of slavery and modern-day segregation, redlining, and other forms of discrimination. While many know of these policies which deprive families of color of equality of opportunity, a lack of data can hide or exacerbate their effects. Long and persistent undercounting of certain Black populations has led to bias and inaccuracies in how government funding is distributed, limiting the resources provided to communities of color. Efforts such as the Black Census Project and Data for Black Lives have attempted to improve collection and address inequalities.

Inequalities in Health

  1. Reduced Quality of Care: In a 2005 report, the National Academy of Medicine noted Black patients were less likely than white patients to be given the appropriate care for certain conditions due to implicit and explicit bias. These conditions contribute to the fact that Black women are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. A related concern is the increasing role of algorithms and the possibility that biases in them might undermine care of minority patients. In 2019, a publication in Science reviewed a commercial healthcare algorithm used by doctors to recommend treatment. The study found the algorithm demonstrated significant racial bias, failing to note the complex health needs of black patients relative to white patients. The study’s authors reported the findings to the company responsible and is working with them without salary to improve the algorithm.

Social Justice and Rights Inequalities

  1. Access to Housing: Inequities in housing between white people and people of color are perpetuated through both laws on land use and more informal systems of discrimination. Questions remain regarding the optimal policy and social responses to these formal and informal barriers to equitable access to housing. Some organizations are experimenting with data-driven ways to understand and visualize phenomena like gentrification and segregation — including the MIT Media Lab’s Atlas of Inequality and those initiatives from Los Angeles and other cities compiled by Harvard.

Moving forward:

The above topics point to major manifestations of bias and injustice in the United States against Black people. While the existence of racism in many of these areas may not be news, many of the topics here can be addressed with policies informed by data or data analysis. With increased access to data, it is possible to advance understanding of the depth and causes of these inequalities and identify ways through which they can be systematically addressed. They can help decisionmakers identify their own biases and prejudices and understand how it has reproduced inequities.

In this conclusion, we summarize some of these avenues, describing how new data methods, increased access to data, improved data responsibility and hiring decisions can help policymakers and others chip away at the entrenched racism and bias evident in our society through data.

  • Revealing Hidden Inequalities: Sometimes racism is starkly apparent, but often it is more subtle and insidious. Data analysis can help policymakers make visible patterns and trends and take steps toward addressing them. Recent uses of data in metropolitan areas show that, despite efforts to promote integration and combat discrimination, many US cities remain deeply segregated. Experts such as Dayna Bowen Matthew at the Brookings Institution have sought to identify factors that contribute to this fact and recommend policies to address them.

The first iteration of this piece was developed by The GovLab at New York University Tandon School of Engineering with contributions from: Stefaan Verhulst, Andrew J. Zahuranec, Andrew Young, Danuta Egle, Mary Ann Badavi, Nadiya Safonova, Rashida Richardson, Beth Simone Noveck, Charlton McIlwain, Mona Sloane, Juliet McMurren, and Amen Ra Mashariki.

Data Stewards Network

Responsible Data Leadership to Address the Challenges of…

The GovLab

Written by

The Governance Lab improving people’s lives by changing how we govern. @thegovlab @nyutandon #opendata #peopleledinnovation #datacollab

Data Stewards Network

Responsible Data Leadership to Address the Challenges of the 21st Century

The GovLab

Written by

The Governance Lab improving people’s lives by changing how we govern. @thegovlab @nyutandon #opendata #peopleledinnovation #datacollab

Data Stewards Network

Responsible Data Leadership to Address the Challenges of the 21st Century

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