I was honored and delighted to join some incredible thinkers and doers on Monday for a one-day conference, Change by Design, at the Ford Foundation. The audience was chock full of many of the foundation's amazing grantees doing essential work on some of our toughest issues.
The day's speakers addressed a range of topics all stemming from the proliferation of complex data, the techniques and technologies developing around its use, and its applications within the nonprofit world -- from research to advocacy to communications strategies. I was asked to discuss a project I hadn't touched in some time and attempted to frame that research within the frequent hope that through solid data alone we might make sound decisions. In addition to the opportunity to meet the speakers and grantees, I admit that much of the fun of the day came from revisiting the work in my own presentation as well as Laura Kurgan's presentation of Architecture and Justice and the Million Dollar Blocks project.
One of the several take-aways from the day (and a recurrent theme in conversation) was the inherent politics of information and the constant subsequent need to redefine the parameters and purposes of that information. Human data is generated, collected, and organized by people -- people with agendas and agendas that serve specific purposes. What was clear throughout the day, and in particular within my panel, was the need to redefine the context of that data in order to appropriate its use, whether that be to effectively address an argument on its own terms, to challenge existing assumptions, to shed light on what is absent from the conversation, or even just to make do with the often insufficient data out in the world. When you are not the person or organization collecting and generating information, it is that act of redefinition and appropriation that affords you control over the politics of the dataset. It is through redefinition and reframing that your work need not be constrained by the assumptions and values of the data sources you use, but can rather stand atop your own assumptions, injected with your own values.
Also mentioned in the day was the idea that people who use data for the purpose of driving social change (like me) might consider offering a list of online data (re)sources that they (we, I) frequently use. I'm officially taking this suggestion and will start compiling that list to make available here on my site. Please expect that new development soon.
Again, I'd like to thank the Ford Foundation, specifically Jenny Toomey and the Change by Design team, for a fantastic experience.