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How to Use Data as a Tool of Empowerment

Sarah Williams

In our interview with Sarah, we’ll be discussing if we can entirely remove biases from data sets and how we can decolonise data structures.

Sarah Williams is an Associate Professor of Technology and Urban Planning at MIT Director of the Civic Data Design Lab and Author. Follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Sarah herself has worked on multiple unique projects in which we can do so, for example, Digital Matatus, which shows how to pull the omnipresent nature of mobile technology in developing countries to collect data for infrastructure. This data created a new, successful transit map for Nairobi and has led to a spark, where similar projects are developing in other cities.

In our interview, Sarah explains that she wanted to ensure that the data collection was as inclusive as possible. As well as forming a diverse team, Sarah worked with all the matatus drivers and many stakeholders, such as matatus unions, associations, and governments.

“Data has always been used as a tool for power and control.” — Sarah Williams Sarah argues that we should always be sceptical when looking at data sets and maps. In our interview, she gave some examples of how maps have been used as a tool to eradicate communities. When creating maps and data visualisations, it is essential to analyse how we can present this information from a neutral perspective. Design choices are critical in these cases, for example, the colouring of certain factors on maps.

To create data for positive action, Sarah summed up the seven principles from her book:

  1. Thinking about possible harms a dataset can create
  2. Building a diverse team
  3. Changing power dynamics
  4. Exposing hidden systems
  5. Ground trusting
  6. Sharing data through open communications
  7. Creating own ethical standards

What are some other factors we need to take into consideration when building inclusive data sets? Join the conversation in our Slack channel!

What are your thoughts? Join our Slack channel and join the conversation!