We Break it Down is an initiative at r-TLP which looks at bringing interesting and extensive pieces of research to the larger public. Here, we try to identify the takeaways and present our impressions about the piece. This is an earnest effort at bringing Feminist literature and research at the intersection of Technology, Policy and Society to the fore.
Sapni looks at “AfroFeminist Data Futures ”, authored by Neema Iyer, Chenai Chair and Garnett Achieng from POLLICY.
Understanding and engaging in the debate over technology policy is now fundamentally stooped in the conversations around data. While contextual differences exist, a truly global perspective does not emerge without recognising the thread running through the Global South. The power dynamics around data mirrors historically oppressive norms such as patriarchy, gender, class and racial biases that have long limited access and opportunity. They continue to dictate norms of today and the future. The first step to change them is to understand and challenge them. Pollicy’s Afrofeminist Data Futures is a stride furthering the idea of data for good from an Afrofeminist perspective. It is striking that the work was funded by Facebook. The authors still go on to eloquently highlight the problems of amplification of pre-existing societal tensions through invasive means in the datafied world, such as online harassment and surveillance. They clearly acknowledge that this is enabled by western tech giants who provide data infrastructure and reap enormous profits out of the same.
The boons and banes of datafication remain the subject matter of heated debates. This report advances this dialogue from the perspective of Data Feminism. D’Ignazio and Klein’s book titled Data Feminism contributed immensely in developing this idea. However, contextualising these arguments beyond the West is imperative for feminists fighting for causes of the marginalised. This work acts as an exhaustive premise to argue for inclusive data feminism and a truly global future that considers the lived experiences of many for data justice.
Social media remains a crucial point of data infrastructure across Africa. The researchers have identified the interaction between feminist movements and data ecosystems in the continent, hinging on the value of non-commercial social media data for these movements. They seek to further the cause of these movements through the use of data, using them to their benefit rather than mere profit making of corporations.
There is a clear distinction drawn between sex-disaggregated data, gender data and feminist data. It is necessary to understand the differences between these often substituted terms as the variances in their collection, use and processing have considerable effects in supporting feminist movements and justice, as positioned within Afrofeminist future. Accordingly, sex-disaggregated data means data collected and presented separated on men and women to inform gender analysis, but falls short as it hinges only on biological differences between males and females. Gender data is further nuanced as it considers the stereotypes and socio-cultural factors that introduce gender bias into data, forcing researchers to identify bias embedded within data. Finally, feminist data uses the feminist principles in data collection and processing, identifying power imbalances, incorporating intersectionality and valuing participants as co-producers of knowledge rather then benign entities that are data sources. The research participants point out the high value of sex- disaggregated data in advocacy, but the scarcity of the same. Gender data when collected, which has a clear experiential focus, has been identified to be often disregarded for their lack of readily consumable statistics and generalisation that drives policymaking.
This however, does not stop the use of social media platforms as safe spaces for discussions as well as solidarity. The room it provides for feminist movements to organise and do meaningful advocacy is huge, particularly in repressive regimes. Data is further used by feminist organisations to collect data on incidence and prevalence rates, provision of services and clinic in-take, social media metrics and reach and to estimate knowledge, perception and behaviour. They use a host of tools including products from Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and communication tools such as Twitter, Telegram and Zoom. Data collection platforms and data analysis platforms also play a significant role, as do productivity tools. The purpose of such data collection has been broadly identified as four – Advocacy and awareness raising, Policy influence, Program and Impact Measurement and Fundraising and Needs Assessment.
Within the context of Africa, the research identifies ten major impediments to the use of data. Digital literacy forms one of the biggest impediments. It is interesting that the authors bring up the predominance of western languages in digital tools, which results in lack of access to data while it is already present. Higher digital literacy in Anglophone African countries as compared to Francophone and Lusophone counterparts is also indicative of the general difficulty in using tools that prevails across the Global South. The lack of access and connectivity forms another hurdle, caused due to complex patriarchal structures as well as weak enabling policies, which do not understand the disproportionate effect on women. It is no surprise that one is reminded of such attitudes that still linger in India, for our political leaders still endorse hindrances to access and connectivity to women.
In the case that data is available, there are other pressing challenges faced by these movements. Firstly, there is unavailability of gender-disaggregated data, which the researchers identify to be the result of lack of enabling policies and practices by the government as well as the private sector. Further, the data available is also dated in most cases, preventing their robust use. The lack of enthusiasm for public surveys leaves these movements only with donor funded or international surveys, which are not easy to come by either.
Interestingly, the authors give an exhaustive view of the lack of resources to access data even when it is a product of Africa, produced with the help of local researchers. The gatekeeping that prevents public access is not limited to expensive academic journals. They also identify that other civil society organisations and private companies do not share data considering the need to maintain an edge and other economic considerations. This is also reflected in the difficulty of resources for the very generation of data due to lack of funds and the ability to bear the expenses of a technical expert. Additionally, the lack of priority to feminist causes hampers these movements. The superficial debate framed is feminism versus women empowerment, as they try to bring about structural changes and not short term impact. This is also connected to the inability to provide volumes of evidence to donors, to show the change that has been made due to the interventions of these movements. The departure from western ideas of feminism is a result of the realities of African lives. Such rigid norms further impair the verification and replicability of available sources, which are not robust due to the lack of rigour in methodology.
These challenges play their fair part in precluding the use of data for furthering the causes of feminist movements. However, the strong principled stance of these feminist movements also find themselves caught in concerns regarding data use. Ethical considerations ranging from manipulative interests in secondary data to political motives behind such data concern them. They also worry if the collection and processing of such data causes further trauma to the respondents. They highlight that higher value placed on quantitative data hinged on western research philosophy as against other forms of research such as oral history distances bodies from the story that data points say. A strong belief that lives are beyond statistics stands out clearly here.
Concerns of data privacy and data security also bother such movements. Additionally, the difference in digital age of consent promoting use of social media by minors worries participants who are in a fix, as consent is a non-negotiable feminist consideration. Preventing bias from creeping in at the point of collection through trust is an important and costly affair, as they tend to reinforce cultural and patriarchal barriers. The practice of shadowbanning on social media becomes an ethical challenge for them as these play a critical communication channel. It contributes to marginalisation of communities in the virtual world, who are already fighting these battles offline, locking them out of opportunities. Technology’s treatment of women of colour has been proven to perpetrate existing biases, raising alarms in their use. The concern about women’s safety on digital platforms, when it is used as a primary channel also proves a difficult challenge to navigate.
The researchers put forward certain recommendations that the participants suggest could help fix the system. To make the system accessible and adaptable for all addressing the concerns of these Afrofeminist movements can help a great deal. In the short term they suggest independent, and decentralised data collection. Such data is to be made available by non-partisan centres which understand pre-existing power dynamics in the society and are accountable to the citizens. This would then ensure that the data is open, verifiable, replicable and shared in accessible formats, without closing its doors on marginalised communities in the society. They also suggest that self-governing feminist data collaboratives be established, that could learn from each other and contribute to the larger cause. This could also aid their next suggestion, of building trust within feminist movement through the use of data and sharing their learnings on data. Importantly, it is also necessary that there is ample resource allocation in terms of funding for such feminist movements, in addition to the special attention on funding data training and feminist technologists.
As an ideology, feminism is built on bringing long term changes to alter prevailing societal norms for the benefit of all. For data to play a crucial and encouraging part in this, social media platforms should improve women’s safety practices. This could include engaging with moderation of indigenous content by private companies, to incorporation of digital hygiene practices in curricula, in addition to legal and policy measures. They also identify the hidden colonial nature of research itself, that makes historically oppressed voices hard to hear. There is an imminent need to shift policymaking from quantitative data to an inclusive basis of qualitative, quantitative and big data. This would involve large scale archiving to move from accumulating data points to being digital storehouses of histories. Finally, future of data governance cannot be built on shaky planes which do not consider marginalised communities and the discrimination they face. Technology should be modelled in a way that enables data flows. It should distribute costs and benefits fairly across the society, upholding values such as equity, and democracy in their true sense.
The vision of an Afrofeminist Data future by the authors is more than just a landscape of what could be done to right historical wrongs. It is an attempt at reforming the understanding of data that fuels most of the world economy today. Social media platforms hold an inordinate amount of power in today’s world because of the vast amounts of data, which can still be used for good. Corporations might not do this on their own, as the status quo does not hinder their profiteering. In fact positioned comfortably, incentivising them to not disrupt it. It is an unfair onus on feminist movements to champion this, whose relentless work has given so much to the society. However, it is an important cause that must be rallied for. This timely piece of literature provides a map for feminist movements across the globe, and particularly the global south to ensure that the future we build does not cast down or disenfranchise the way other riches have been exploited to the disadvantage of many in the past.