Data for Black Lives Wants to Connect Scientists and Activists

Bridge-building conference set for November in Boston.

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When Yeshimabeit Milner was a teenager, growing up in Miami, she learned what injustice looks like. After an administrator put a high school student in a headlock, and police officers responded to other students during a protest by hitting them with batons and slamming them to the ground, she and her peers began to organize. They surveyed 600 students about their experiences with suspensions, arrests and police brutality and turned their findings into a comic book.

Milner has been an organizer ever since. After attending Brown University, she returned to Miami to work for the Power U Center, a grassroots organization fighting for liberation of all people. Most recently, she served as the movement building campaign manager at Color of Change. She’s a board member for the Highlander Research and Education Center, a nonprofit organization that supports activists through training and education.

“All of those experiences led up to Data for Black Lives,” she says, describing the organization she founded with Lucas Mason-Brown, a mathematician at MIT, in August 2016. “Data for Black Lives seeks to mobilize scientists around racial justice issues by really building a bridge between data scientists, software engineers, mathematicians, et cetera, and people working in and on the front lines of black communities.

Milner wants to use data to identify issues to tackle in the black community. She hopes to work with the growing number of chief data officers in cities across the United States too, to figure out how to better use data to address issues ranging from displacement to economic opportunity.

“Our fake Data for Black Lives tagline is ‘Men lie. Women lie. Numbers don’t.’ Like Jay-Z says,” Milner explains. “People can lie but the data speaks for itself and the numbers tell a story.”

In November, D4BL will convene community members, organizers, policymakers and data scientists at MIT’s Media Lab to discuss racial inequities and segregation in Boston. Milner and Mason-Brown (who are receiving some support as 2017 Echoing Green fellows) hope the three-day conference will become an annual event.

For D4BL, data science is an interdisciplinary, collaborative process that uses tools like visualization and mapping, as well as artificial intelligence and machine learning, to bring meaning and solutions to impact people’s lives.

“There has historically been a gap and major silos between activists and scientific communities and that’s because of a really politically, racially charged and often violent history,” Milner says. “I think, not only do we have an opportunity to, but it is a necessity that, we flip the script on that and we change that.”

At the conference, D4BL will release a platform outlining ways data and technology can improve the lives of black people. Data is increasingly being held up as a way for city officials to make better decisions, and for organizers to tell their stories. So-called “smart cities” are deploying technology in the name of everything from gathering information about commuters to accessibility. D4BL is focusing on racial justice.

For example, when it comes to economic justice, Milner’s looking at tapping into Bitcoin and Blockchain, so that cryptocurrency wealth is circulated in black communities. As for ways numbers and algorithms can have a negative impact, Milner points to how credit scores and predictive policing can perpetuate injustice.

Another issue Milner says D4BL wants to tackle: preparing for automation to take away retail and truck driving jobs by creating and training for other work opportunities. Blair Evans, director of Incite Focus, a fabrication lab in Detroit, will be at the November conference. Entrepreneurs launch businesses in such spaces, where there’s technology like 3D printers, and training and mentorship — but people of color are often not using these spaces. Evans has worked to change that.

“You can already guess the kind of demographic makeup of people of tech shops, white folks,” Milner says. “But what Blair Evans is doing is making this available for folks in Detroit.”

Milner says they plan to build on the work that other organizations and networks — like the Movement for Black Lives and Lawyers for Black Lives — have already done. Last year, Movement for Black Lives released a platform that includes strategies for evening the economic playing field in the U.S. And, as data scientist Samuel Sinyangwe wrote in an op-ed for Next City in 2015, a quantitative approach has benefited the movement. Writing about the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Sinyangwe said, “Armed with cell phones, digital networks and now crowdsourced data, we have overcome those who claimed that Mike Brown was an isolated incident and forced policymakers to take action.”

As for Boston being the location — and subject of — the first D4BL conference, Milner says they wanted to zero in on one city so that they could make the work they do relevant to the local community, whether they’re organizers, service providers or teachers.

“Boston is the home of MIT and Harvard and Boston University and all their amazing research institutions and so much innovation on so many levels, but it’s also what many people call ‘up south,’” Milner says. “Because it’s so racist, so segregated. But it’s definitely become national because the implications of these conversations, as we’re realizing, are translatable all over the country. That’s just the way segregation and institutional racism are set up, right?”

Using census data, reports have found that the Boston metro area is among the most racially segregated in the country. Housing segregation has a long history in the city. While the city is diverse, systemic racism has pushed people of color and those with lower incomes to the margins. A 2017 report from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council found that regardless of income, people of color lived in less affluent neighborhoods than white people with similar incomes. When two households made $78,000, the white household was more likely to live in neighborhoods where the median household income was $72,000 while black household lived where the median household income was $51,000. And working families have been pushed out because they can’t afford housing.

The city of Boston is working on these disparities. Mayor Marty Walsh appointed a chief resilience officer in 2015 whose goal is to look at the role of racism and income inequality in disaster recovery. Milner also wants to build on that.

“Whenever we’re going to start a campaign or any kind of project, we have to go to the community first,” Milner says. “My goal is that we leave the conference with a much more precise understanding of what is needed to respond at this moment.”

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Deonna Anderson is Next City's editorial director. An award-winning journalist, she has served as a senior editor at GreenBiz and worked with YES! Magazine, KLCC (an NPR affiliate station in Eugene, Oregon), The Lily, Atmos and other media outlets. Anderson is an alumna of the University of California, Davis and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. She lives in the Bay Area. She was also Next City's 2017-2018 Equitable Cities Reporting Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @iamDEONNA.

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