The power of data to fight racism

Access to and collection of citizen data is key to good municipal policy. In fact, anti-racist movements believe that collecting data disaggregated by race and ethnicity will reveal certain discrimination suffered by the racialized population. So why  is this data not known? Where is the problem? The collection of sensitive personal data can carry an added risk  to  which we discuss and reflect in the framework of the Smart City Week in Barcelona.

Without data, knowing the social reality is very difficult. It is more difficult to segment, locate injustices or know the reasons why certain actions take place; And mainly, it is more difficult to denounce the discrimination that persists in our societies. Knowledge of reality is therefore essential for any social cause, but in Spain it continues to be a complicated challenge.

Opacity of data

In this sense, and with the aim of pointing out causes and consequences of working with personal data, Espai Societat Oberta  initiated a dialogue within the framework of Smart City Week called “The power of data to fight racism”. We had three top-level experts such as Thais Ruiz de Alda (director of DigitalFems), Youssef M. Ouled, journalist and researcher on the consequences of racism and Dani de Torres (director of the Spanish Network of Intercultural Cities (RECI).

The algorithms are still somewhat opaque and it is difficult to know with certainty what criteria they operate with. Who designs them and with what data? These are the two great doubts that arise when we think about the treatment of our data by large technological platforms such as Facebook, Google, Amazon or Telecom. In order for the use of personal data to be effective and to comply with a code of good practices, we must promote user protection measures such as anonymization. “We need experts to help treat and understand the data to promote user protection measures and, in turn, for a part of civil society to promote this debate,” Ruiz de Alda concluded.

Spain is a country with racially diverse communities, although the collection of data on them does not express it that way. According to Youssef M.Ouled, “By examining data we can analyze consequences relying on information and statistics, recognizing the diversity of its inhabitants.” If we have objective data we can address the issue with public policies and generate changes where other policies generate or reinforce inequality and discrimination.

Data and police forces

A clear example of the challenges that this situation entails are identifications based on racial profiling. Many identifications originate with a racist bias, but this fact cannot be justified with data because it is not collected. “It is absurd to denounce racism when there are no black people in Spain,” argued M.Ouled. The lack of commitment of some administrations and the historical examples where this data collection has been used for almost genocidal purposes, as in the case of the Roma, highlight the need for efficient tools.

Ouled also mentioned the case of police initiatives to improve these practices, promoted by conservative or left-wing governments, and how internal confrontations had been generated. Fundamentally, the collection of data that organizations demand should serve to correct racist biases and to promote policies to alleviate such discrimination.

Information is power?

Spain is one of the countries with the least amount of information on discrimination. It is very difficult to know if a greater equality of real rights is being generated or advanced without having data on it, explains Dani de Torres, director of RECI. In other countries, there is much more data that has led to benefits but has also led to terrible ends. The fact of having data does not guarantee better management but without data you cannot defend yourself,” he explains.

The exercise of not wanting to stigmatize for not asking only reinforces racial inequality and ultimately leads to worse consequences. With the COVID crisis, there are scenarios in other territories in which information has been collected on how it affects certain profiles, but here we cannot even say it, because there is no awareness of it or a collective awareness of these variables.

Some useful documents in relation to data capture and discrimination:

  1. Article on collection of official ethnic-racial data to measure racism: a stagnant debate in Spain that is gaining strength in Europe
  2. Report on Police indentification y ethnic profile in Spain, experiences and attitudes in relation to police actions.
  3. Report Under Suspicion: The Human Impact of Discriminatory Police Controls by Open Society Foundations and Rights International Spain (RIS).

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