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On Jackie Robinson West and Coming to Terms With the Use (or Misuse) of Public Data

BY Jessica McKenzie | Friday, February 13 2015

These are boundaries in Chicago. (urbanoasis.org)

Earlier this week a Little League baseball team was stripped of their championship title because of a whistleblower. That is what Chris Janes is: a concerned citizen who perceived an injustice and acted accordingly, trawling through public records until he had the evidence to take to the appropriate authorities. So why does his triumph make people feel so bad?

To be clear: this was no David and Goliath story. Jackie Robinson West made history last year as the first all-black Little League team to win the national title. A Chicago Magazine story heralding the team as Chicagoans of the Year characterized them as “a collection of no-name underdogs [transformed] to a national phenomenon.” Their dethroning is a devastating disappointment for the city and for their fans (even President Obama has reaffirmed his support for the kids).

Chris Janes is the Vice President of the Evergreen Park Athletic Associations and the Little League coach of a rival team that lost a game to Jackie Robinson West 43 – 2 in just four innings last year. Janes says he noticed, as the team began garnering praise from media outlets and local politicians, that people from the suburbs “were laying claims to these kids.” Little League teams are supposed to be made up only of kids who live or attend school within specific geographic areas. Janes found that some of the Jackie Robinson West players were from adjacent suburbs.

"We worked diligently, we found a bunch of records, voter registration, vehicle registration, things of that sort and we submitted the complaint," Janes told ABC7 Chicago. He took that information to Little League International, pushing for the investigation that eventually led to the decision to strip the team of the title and belatedly award it to a team from Las Vegas, formerly the runners-up.

“The Evergreen Park coach is a regular resident who used public data to answer a question— to achieve his civic goals,” writes Daniel O'Neil, executive director of the civic organization Smart Chicago Collaborative, in an email to techPresident.

I asked O'Neil both for his thoughts as a Chicagoan and as a civic technologist who encourages others to use public data for public good. He responds, “This is reasonably construed as civic engagement. He is also a legit whistleblower, in every sense of the word. What he alleged is true. He used public facts to bring information to the attention of the Association, in an attempt to address a rule violation.”

“It just doesn't feel good,” O'Neil adds.

At best, Chris Janes' critics call him a sore loser. At worst, they send him death threats.

At a press conference this week, Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Michael Pfleger asked whether Chris Janes' actions were motivated by racism.

"When you're going over to voter registration and going to birth certificates and doing all this time of hunting and a witch hunt that's been going on for the last number of months,” Pfleger said, “I can't help but wonder the question if the same thing would have been done with another team from another place, another race.”

Jackson was more succinct: "Is this about boundaries or race?"

Let's Talk About Boundaries, Briefly

Perhaps this title loss wouldn't smart so much if Chicago didn't have a fraught history of using boundaries to segregate and oppress black communities. Practices like redlining and steering have made modern-day Chicago “America's most segregated city.”

(This is not the place for a more in-depth treatment of these shameful practices and their impact. For more context, see Ta-Nehisi Coates' landmark Atlantic piece, “The Case for Reparations,” and ProPublica's investigation into the US government's decades-long refusal to fight segregation through either neglect or outright sabotage.)

Segregation, it should go without saying, has a profound affect on quality of life, and access to things like education, health care and, yes, youth athletics.

Dave Zirin, The Nation magazine sports writer, argues:

The fact that the adults in charge of JRW felt the need to breach this rule [regarding boundaries] perhaps has something to do with the fact that today’s urban landscape supports baseball about as well as concrete makes proper soil for orchids...In Chicago particularly, which under Mayor Rahm Emanuel has seen school closures and brutal cuts to physical education programs, their success made people believe that—with apologies to Tupac—flowers could in fact grow in concrete.

Zirin reached the Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey for comment:

Mayor Rahm closed half a dozen schools in Jackie Robinson West’s part of the city, and tried to close the school, Marcus Garvey, where the founder of JRW—Joe Haley—worked. Then Chicago Public Schools cut funding for high school freshman sports, laid off a thousand teachers. CPS put forty kids in physical education classes and doesn’t even put a librarian in most of the school libraries in [the South Side district of] Auburn Gresham.

In an opinion piece for Red Eye Chicago, Evan Moore referred to the same decision: “Remember when Mayor Emanuel closed 50 schools last year? Not only were schools closed, but after-school programs, including baseball, fell by the wayside as well.”

Moore also alluded to the fact that one of the players was at one point homeless: “Let’s not forget Jaheim Benton’s living situation. Do you think his parents cared about residency rules when they were homeless?”

“Geography is often destiny,” Daniel O'Neil wrote on his blog after he heard the decision. “We have to break that.”

Defending Public Data for Public Good

Reflecting further on the controversy for techPresident, O'Neil writes:

All of this (researching public records, doxing people, and fetishizing singular pieces of info) has been something I've been ruminating on for a while. We focus on so many things that lead to less joy. That have no relation to the will of the people. That merely leads to the glorification of individuals without regard to mass joy.

I see it every week—some new app/ new thing/ new fact that has nothing to do with the needs of the masses. Based on no discussion with regular residents, no methods of engagement that have any integrity. Instead, they are based on very a similar process we saw here—a single person (to our knowledge) taking it upon themselves to highlight particular facts in the vastness of public data....

As a movement, we have to talk more deliberately about what we want to make, and we have to see ourselves in the context of all users of public data—the scoundrels of [the] background check business, the deep-targeting of political campaigns, all of it.

Of course, not everything “civic” needs to be joyous. Life is hard. It’s just that I believe in using data and technology to help people live together in large municipalities, to come together in joy to solve common problems.

The sad story of Jackie Robinson West is a reminder that the tools and resources that civic technologists want to give the world will not always be used in ways that they anticipated, or of which they approve. That, frankly, they just won't always be used for what one might call “good.”