#Data4BlackLives conference highlights how technology and race interact
Data 4 Black Lives, a group comprised of activists, organizers, and mathematicians who are committed to using data science to create concrete and measurable change in the lives of Black people, had their third conference this weekend. Titled Data 4 Black Lives II, the conference was held on the campus of MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts and featured topical discussions around the 2020 Census, algorithms for local organizing, gun violence, and the role of what the group describes as “movement scientists”.
The group was founded by Yeshimabeit Milner in 2015, who told VICE about the first official Data 4 Black Lives Conference at MIT in 2017, “It’s like we put out a Bat Signal to the universe; people just came flooding toward us… “There were so many black scientists, people working in tech companies and laboratories who are passionate about science but don’t know how to get involved—or, if they’re black, don’t know how to reconcile their identity as a black person and a scientist because they’ve been told to [mutually] exclude the two.”
One of the many topics of this year’s conference surrounded Amazon’s doorbell using facial recognition technology that can be programmed to identify “suspicious faces” and can call the police automatically. According to research from Perpetual Lineup, over half American adults are enrolled in a facial recognition database available to law enforcement agencies, the same agencies consistently perpetuate racial violence.
OH. Amazon face-recognition doorbell can be programmed by the homeowner to identify "suspicious faces"??? and can automatically trigger a call to police?? JESUS BE A SHIELD, this tech is going to get Black and brown people killed ? #Data4BlackLives
— cyborg witch (@dn_charles) January 12, 2019
Additionally, presenter Valencia Gunder, the founder of Make the Homeless Smile, a non-profit that offers showers, haircuts, and other services to homeless people in Miami and Atlanta, gave a talk on how the man-made phenomenon of climate gentrification results in the displacement of residents in the historically Black communities like Little Haiti, Liberty City, and Overtown.
We need to build technology that our communities want. And when you test your tech, think about who is included and who is being left out. #Data4BlackLives
— Data for Black Lives (@Data4BlackLives) January 13, 2019
At another point, presenter Timnit Gebru, co-founder of the organization Black in AI, an organization aimed at creating collaboration and initiatives that increase Black representation in the field of artificial intelligence, told the crowd, “Black folks are incredibly underrepresented in data science and AI/ML. We need to be at the table and have the tools that others have at our disposal to solve our own problems. This should be a global movement.”
A vital component of the conference was the group’s presence on social media, particularly Twitter, where Q&A sessions were held to expand the reach of the discussion beyond the room in MIT, and created larger questions for the whole of social media to help answer. As Milner told VICE in 2017, “What we’re told in the media about dystopia, about software eating the world and taking our jobs—how do we turn it around and use it as an opportunity to build real power for black people?” Milner then declared, “I have to live in the future.”