Last week, people across the globe held events to acknowledge the 50-year anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel. Many emotions and conversations were sparked surrounding the plight of our community and evolved challenges now faced in addition to opportunities afforded by the legacy of Dr. King’s work and sacrifice. Consequently, our news channels and social media timelines were flooded with MLK events, alongside increasing coverage around Facebook data—in particular, Cambridge Analytica, who harvested private data of 87 million active Facebook users that was used to influence the 2016 election, which contributes to an ongoing psychological warfare of social media platform users.
Both incidences have sparked an almost eerie correlation between Dr. King’s work and the power of data. If Martin Luther King were alive today, would the dream he famously spoke of be around democratizing data for the black community?
In Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a DREAM” speech, what if the dream now stands for Data Rules Everything Around Me. Data-driven decisions rule everything, especially in business, economic development, and, most importantly, our community. As such, it becomes increasingly important we do not ignore unfolding developments surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica’s unholy union and possible implications.
Enter the organization Data for Black Lives—a nonprofit organization of over 2,000 scientists, activists, organizers, and mathematicians committed to the mission of using data science to create concrete and measurable change in the lives of black people—which released an open letter and petition to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on April 4, essentially asking the same question in regard to the usage of user data. I, for one, am desperately awaiting Facebooks response.
Since the advent of computing, big data and algorithms have penetrated virtually every aspect of our social and economic lives. These new data systems have tremendous potential to empower communities of color. Tools like statistical modeling, data visualization, and crowd-sourcing, in the right hands, are powerful instruments to battle bias, build progressive movements, attract needed funding for businesses and communities while promoting civic engagement.
Nonetheless, history tells a different story, one in which data is too often wielded as an instrument of oppression, reinforcing inequality and perpetuating injustice as with redlining—a data-driven enterprise that resulted in the systematic exclusion of black communities from key financial services and housing. More recently, trends like predictive policing, risk-based sentencing, and predatory lending are troubling evolutions of our painful past. Today, discrimination is a high-tech enterprise.
In their open letter, written by their co-founder Yeshimabeit Milner, the group is asking Facebook for the following: