Data & Fairness

Recognizing increasing concerns over how data may be used to enable or violate civil rights, Data & Society is working to identify emergent issues and provide research that may help inform the discussions that are underway. Data & Society is working with civil rights groups, technologists, and researchers to identify issues where new technologies enable or complicate conversations around equity, inequality, and fairness. The goal of this project is to bridge technical and social conversations and provide information that may be helpful in sparking thoughtful conversations and enabling productive interventions.

This initiative builds on the amazing work of civil rights leaders to help imagine a set of “Civil Rights Principles for the Era of ‘Big Data’” and the efforts of the White House to raise civil rights concerns as part of their review of big data. In March 2014, Data & Society hosted a conference as part of the White House’s review process. “The Social, Cultural & Ethical Dimensions of ‘Big Data’” focused heavily on questions of inequity, unintended consequences, and discrimination. (Primers and workshop notes, as well as video of the proceedings, can be accessed here.) Questions raised at that event helped fuel the development of this initiative, which benefits from ongoing collaboration with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, New America’s Open Technology Institute, and Upturn.

Data & Civil Rights Conference

On October 30, 2014, Data & Society, the Leadership Conference, and New America teamed up to host the first Data & Civil Rights Conference to identify and discuss opportunities and challenges presented by “big data” in the realm of civil rights. This conference focused on examining existing civil rights issues and asking how the availability of data and the practices surrounding data analytics may alter the landscape, both productively and problematically.

To ground discussions at this conference, the team produced research primers on six different areas: criminal justice, education, employment, finance, health, and housing. In addition, the team put together a technology primer to ground the technology discussions. (Primers and workshop writeups, as well as breakout session writeups and video of the proceedings, can be accessed at

Additional partners included the ACLU, the Center for Democracy & Technology, the Center for Media Justice, and Upturn. This event was made possible through the guidance and support of the Ford Foundation with additional funding and support by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Media Democracy Fund, Omidyar Network, and Open Society Foundations.

Police Body-Worn Cameras

Data & Society produced a primer on police body-worn cameras that was released in February 2015.

In the wake of the police shooting of Michael Brown in August 2014, as well as the subsequent protests in Ferguson, Missouri and around the country, there has been a call to mandate the use of body-worn cameras to promote accountability and transparency in police-civilian interactions. Both law enforcement and civil rights advocates are excited by the potential of body-worn cameras to improve community policing and safety, but there is no empirical research to conclusively suggest that these will reduce the deaths of black male civilians in encounters with police. There are some documented milder benefits evident from small pilot studies, such as more polite interactions between police and civilians when both parties are aware they are being recorded, and decreased fraudulent complaints made against officers. Many uncertainties about best practices of body-worn camera adoption and use remain, including when the cameras should record, what should be stored and retained, who should have access to the footage, and what policies should determine the release of footage to the public. As pilot and permanent body-worn camera programs are implemented, the primer asks questions about how they can best be used to achieve their touted goals. How will the implementation of these programs be assessed for their efficacy in achieving accountability goals? What are the best policies to have in place to support those goals?

The Data & Fairness initiative is currently supported by the Ford Foundation.

All Work