You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

New Organization, Data Justice, to Work on Society's Big Data Problem

BY Jessica McKenzie | Tuesday, March 17 2015

Lady Justice (LonPicMan/Wikipedia)

Yesterday saw the public launch of Data Justice, a new organization dedicated to promoting economic justice in our data-driven society. Simultaneous with the announcement, the organization released its first report, “Taking on Big Data as an Economic Justice Issue,” written by Data Justice director Nathan Newman.

Through Data Justice, which has received initial funding from the Media Democracy Fund, Newman wants to reframe the debate about big data as one of a collective concern. “Too often,” he tells techPresident, “advocates have focused on the harms of big data as being loss of individual privacy, individual loss of a job due to discrimination, or more generally lost freedom framed in individualistic terms.”

However, Newman argues that “we all lose[e] collectively” when companies take advantage of big data at the expense of the consumer and of the worker.

Data Justice will bring together people studying the impact of big data from different perspectives and, Newman hopes, will lead to collaboration and ultimately firm policy recommendations and systemic change. In addition to Newman, the advisory board includes Gene Kimmelman, the CEO and president of Public Knowledge; Cathy O'Neil, a computer scientist, mathematician, and former financial analyst; Frank Pasquale, a law professor and author of The Black Box Society; and Anders Schneiderman, co-founder of Data Chefs.

“There is an emerging policy crisis around big data,” Cathy O'Neil tells techPresident, that is being addressed in “disconnected and separated ways.”

The purpose of Data Justice, she explains, is to “collect people to make it into a movement...to think about [big data] holistically, with lots of different perspectives.”

The Data Justice site, which is already richly populated with links to recent studies, news articles and opinion pieces, in addition to a few early blog posts by members of the advisory board, lists a number of policy campaigns ranging from “limit employer profiling” to “bring antitrust action against Google and other big data platforms.”

Briefly outlining the short- and long-term goals of the organization for techPresident, Newman said that within six months he hopes the organizations and individuals Data Justice brings together can come to a consensus on which policy recommendations to act on first. After that, Newman says, they can begin to “build a real coalition, educate policy makers, activate grassroots [networks], and get real activism moving forward.”

Within five years they hope to begin getting some of their policy recommendations enacted.

The launch of Data Justice comes a little over a year after a group of advocacy and civil society organizations released the document “Civil Rights Principles for the Era of Big Data,” and just under a year since the White House released a report on big data that acknowledged that algorithms have the potential to be discriminatory. However, as I wrote at the time, civil rights groups found the report lacking in many ways.

“It nods to all the right stakeholders except the public,” Joseph Turow, author of The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth, told techPresident last May.

The White House continues to work on big data policy—in fact Cathy O'Neil tells techPresident she is in talks with the administration about working with them on this issue.

The moment for an organization like Data Justice is now. Big data isn't going away, and if Newman and co. want to refocus the conversation—on the public not the private sector, and on society not only the individual—and to have a real impact on policy, they need to get started.