Overt racism is easy to spot. But it takes patience and perspective to identify microaggressions — behaviors that systematically degrade or exclude minority communities from key financial services, predictive policing, risk-based sentencing, and predatory lending, to name just a few examples — and to understand the larger impact on affected communities.
As technology rapidly changes our society and our economy, data and technology can be weaponized, unwittingly or otherwise, against diverse communities. But one MIT grad student hoping to turn data and technology into instruments of change has launched a conference to bring together scientists, mathematicians, tech specialists, and community activists to identify the algorithms and other data that suppress racial equality.
Lucas Mason-Brown, an MIT PhD candidate in mathematics, organized the Data for Black Lives (D4BL) conference with Yeshimabeit Milner of Miami and Max Clermont of Chicago, two friends from Mason-Brown's undergraduate days at Brown University.
The idea grew from a Twitter account to the conference just last summer. But once conceived, the conference quickly attracted dozens of top community activists, public officials, computer programmers, and data scientists — many of them Media Lab researchers — to participate. The registration filled up quickly, with more than 300 on the waiting list who were able to watch the conference sessions via Facebook livestream.
An animated crowd gathered at the Media Lab last month armed with hope, and left with alliances and ideas.
“It was amazing, I don’t think Boston has ever seen a convening like this,” Mason-Brown said. “The energy was electric.”
MIT President L. Rafael Reif said that one of the biggest challenges today is to navigate technology’s impacts.
“We welcome your impatience for answers, your insistence that it must be possible to use today’s most powerful technologies to make our society more just, more inclusive and more fair,” he told the crowd Friday night. “Automation and artificial intelligence will continue to transform our work, our lives, our society. Whether the outcome is inclusive or exclusive, whether fair or laissez faire, it is up to us.”
Keynote speaker Ruha Benjamin, a sociologist and an associate professor in the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University and author of “People Science: Bodies and Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier,” earned a standing ovation.
“There is a simmering, there is a substrate of violence, of anti-Black racism, that gives rise to the headlines,” she said. “So we’re looking at the fine print. We’re interrupting a dominant narrative. We’re not going to focus narrowly on technology because that already circumscribes the conversation, we’re going to zoom our lens out and we’re going to talk about the fact that interpretation is required to make sense of data.”
Data can be dangerously drawn, she said, giving the example of The New York Times science reporter Nicholas Wade’s controversial book, “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History,” which blames racial differences for varied degrees of economic success. The same goes for blaming technology, and not ourselves, when things go wrong, she said.
“Human agency, human motivation, and values and politics, that is downstream, that comes after the facts,” she said. “So, what we’re doing is questioning the framing of technological determinism. We are partnering with our algorithms, we are enrolling our robots, we are in solidarity with this infrastructure. It’s not something we’re antagonistic to, but we’re thinking about how to enroll our androids in the struggle.”
Yeshimabeit Milner has been an activist since high school, when she started organizing around the school-to-jail pipeline issue, and is now executive director of D4BL.
“As our society and our injustices becomes increasingly automated, we believe this is one of the most important civil rights battles of our generation,” she said.
Blair Evans, an MIT computer science and electrical engineering alumus who works with programs for at-risk youth in Detroit, said during the Black Work, Black Wealth, Black Futures panel that he believed in using technology to enable what he called “community self-determination.”
“So, if we know we are in the early stages of an exponential growth path and we understand how it’s moving, we want to plot the intercept course and codesign the socio-economic political governance systems that will be enabled by that so that this doesn’t end up being another oppressive integration of new technology,” he said.
Other discussions centered on the dearth of black scientists, health equity, and political organizing. One attendee, Gbenga Ajilore, an economics professor at the University of Toledo, said he was lookeing forward to attending the panel “Automating (In)justice: Policing and Sentencing in the Algorithm Age.”
“There has been a lot of talk on big data and how to make things better,” he said. “To my knowledge, there hasn’t been a good discussion on big data and the downsides of algorithms.”
Attendees discussed collaborating on creative uses of data interpretative technology to confront redlining, predatory lending, school-to-jail trajectories, and health care inequities through statistical modeling, data visualization, and crowdsourcing. Data scientists at MIT and Google talked about ways to plug into social movements.
A number of attendees looked to collaborate with keynote speaker Professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., faculty director of the Harvard Criminal Justice Institute, whose work includes using DNA evidence to exonerate those accused of murder.
“Ron Sullivan’s talk ended with a call to action — can we use cases for which DNA evidence is available to identify red flags for wrongful convictions — cases with single-witness identification and, particularly, cross-racial single-witness identification are especially prone to error,” said Mason-Brown. “Can we use data and algorithms to scale up the critical work that Ron Sullivan and others have been doing to save thousands of mainly black and brown individuals from wrongful imprisonment?"
To build on the energy at the conference, organizers plan a follow-up gathering next fall.
“One of our tasks for 2018 is to figure out how to leverage all of this momentum and to build and maintain this very powerful network of data scientists, activists, and organizers,” said Mason-Brown.
Attendee Ty Austin, a graduate student studying architecture, said that this conference was “long overdue.”
Judy “JJ” Jackson, a diversity and inclusion officer for MIT's Office of the Provost called it “one of the best conferences I attended in my memory … I’m looking for ways to help right now.”
A native of Belmont, Massachusetts, Mason-Brown studied math and philosophy at Brown University, received his masters in mathematics from Trinity College in Dublin, and taught seventh grade math and science for a year at the Edward Brooke School in Roslindale, Massachusetts. For his work with D4BL, he has been named one of 35 Echoing Green Fellows.
Mason-Brown said he is looking forward to the next conference, although he admits that it’s a challenge to juggle D4BL with his academic workload. A third-year PhD student in the Department of Mathematics at MIT, Mason-Brown studies representation theory — the study of abstract symmetries. Between his research, Data for Black Lives, and managing the Math Learning Center, Mason-Brown is busy, but he doesn’t see his research and activism as being in conflict with one another.
“My math research fuels my activism and my activism fuels my research. It’s not a zero-sum game,” he said.