Black Data Scientists and AI Practitioners Today

Jana Thompson
IBM Data Science in Practice
5 min readFeb 23, 2022

In the previous two posts, we covered two historical figures in data science: W.E.B Du Bois and Valerie Thomas. In this penultimate post, I want to cover seven inspiring Black data scientists and AI creators that you should follow on Twitter and whose work I highly encourage following:

Timnit Gebru

Twitter: timnitGebru

a person with glasses wearing a short sleeve top and a long wrap around scarf gesturing and talking while seated. In the background, there is a surface with the word “disrupt” written in a pattern
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Timnit Gebru is a groundbreaking AI researcher at the forefront of finding solutions to mitigating harms from data science and AI products, such as her articles on documenting datasets (Datasheets for Datasets), work on gender and skin color in visual recognition software (co-authored with Joy Buolamwini below), and work on researching methods from outside the discipline to look at sociocultural data for machine learning (Lessons from Archives). Recently, she founded the Distributed Artificial Intelligence Research Institute (DAIR) as a community oriented institute to examine solutions where AI is “rooted in people and communities from the start” [1], where as an early project, research fellow Raesetje Sefala is leading an effort to construct a visual data set to examine the long term effects of spatial apartheid in South Africa.

Joy Buolamwini

Twitter: jovialjoy

Person with glasses wearing a top with a pleated neck and a jacket looking at the camera
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Joy Buolamwini recently completed her PhD from the MIT Media Lab, where she worked for seven years as a graduate researcher. Her body of work is uniquely both creative and technical (she describes her own job title as a “poet of code”) and she was lead author on the paper and project Gender Shades, which tested large visual recognition APIs for their bias on both gender and skin color, leading to revisions and updates for these APIs. As the founder of the Algorithm Justice League, she has built an organization to raise awareness of AI impacts and be a voice for impacted communities.

Ruha Benjamin

Twitter: ruha9

person with long hair and earrings speaking into a microphone
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ruha Benjamin is a professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and the founder of the Ida B. Wells Just Data Lab, which “brings together students, educators, activists, and artists to develop a critical and creative approach to data conception, production, and circulation” and whose “aim is to rethink and retool the relationship between stories and statistics, power and technology, data and justice.” [2] Her 2019 book Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code discusses how social coding is reinforced into computer code and computational practices and is currently working on her fourth book Viral Justice: How We Grow the World We Want.

Yeshimabeit Milner


As a student in middle school and high school, Yeshimabeit Milner was both a victim and witness to the school-to-prison pipeline and worked with others to bring change in her local schools. She and the other members of the Power U Center for Social Change went to collect data from kids at schools around Miami, leading to the publication of the stories and data in a comic book that led to changes in how the Miami School Board handled justice. After graduating from Brown University in 2012, she worked again with the center to look at the root causes and issues of Black maternal mortality, a nationwide issue, at the local community hospital. Using data collected from over 300 Black birth parents from hospital experiences in Miami, Jackson Memorial Hospital changed their polices and revamped their maternity word and birth policies. In 2017, she co-founded Data for Black Lives with Lucas Mason-Brown, “a movement of activists, organizers, and mathematicians committed to the mission of using data science to create concrete and measurable change in the lives of Black people” [3]

Ayanna Howard

Twitter: robotsmarts

person with long braids, wearing a button down shirt and jeans kneeling and repairing a small vehicle with the word “NASA” on it
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ayanna Howard currently serves as the Dean of the College of Engineering at Ohio State University and is a renowned expert and researcher in the field of robotics and the interaction of humans and intelligent agents. She became obsessed with robotics as a child inspired by her favorite TV show, The Bionic Woman. During her years at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, she led the team tasked with advancing intelligence for Mars rovers to allow them to navigate terrain independently and after leaving NASA, she had an endowed chair and professorship at Georgia Tech. In addition to serving at Ohio State, Dr. Howard also founded technology company Zyrobotics to develop educational technologies for children with differing abilities.

Ayodele Odubela

Twitter: DataSciBae

Ayodele Odubela is a passionate believer in non-traditional paths to data science. She began her professional career in marketing and then transitioned to data science after realizing her interest in marketing lay in the data side of her work. After completing her master’s in data science, she worked as a professional data scientist while also building curriculum for educating other hopeful data scientists and developed strategies to mitigate harms from data science and AI that she meticulously documented. Currently, she works both to improve opportunities and provide mentorship for entry-level Black data scientists and consults on creating ethical AI strategies and frameworks for companies. She is the author of Getting Started in Data Science, teaches courses in ethical ML on LinkedIn Learning, and is working on forthcoming book on bias in machine learning.

Bernease Herman

Twitter: bernease

Bernease Herman is a data scientist at WhyLabs in Seattle and at the University of Washington eScience Institute and a Phd student at the UW iSchool. As a data scientist, she has worked on the difficult issues of data auditing and was an early proponent of synthetic data use in machine learning. Additionally, she has looked at acoustic data from ocean observatories as part of her larger research interest in time series data.


The above list is by no means exhaustive, but this is a personal list I’ve derived from my Twitter feed, watching talks, and attending conferences. We encourage you to follow Black in AI and Data for Black Lives to learn more about these groups and other Black data scientists and AI practitioners and explore and be inspired by their brilliant work. Who did I miss? Feel free to join our discussion in the IBM Data Science Community to add your favorite Black data scientist or inspirational figure.

NOTE: If I did not include an image on here, it was because there wasn’t a publicly licensed one of the individual.

References/To Learn More

[1] DAIR Institute Press Release:

[2] About the Ida B. Wells Just Data Lab:

[3] About Data for Black Lives:

[4] Coded Bias:

[5] Practitioner Profile: Yeshimabeiti Milner

[6] Ayodele Odubela’s personal website:

[7] Opportunities for Impact: Startup Zyrobotics Helped Ayanna Howard Reach More People:

[8] Ethical AI Champions:

[9] Bernease Herman on Research Gate:

[10] Ayanna Howard bio:

[11] JPL’s Bionic Woman: Dr. Ayanna Howard