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Communities Need a Say on How Their Data is Collected and Used

While data is being heralded as the new oil, there are serious questions about who actually owns it. Particularly from communities that have every reason to fear the misuse or abuse of this increasingly valuable resource.

Consider that First Nations’ communities decided they had to assert control over their data as far back as 1998. That’s when the OCAP principles (Ownership, Control, Access and Possession) were established to govern how their data should be “collected, protected, used, or shared.”

“We’re not going to advise you on what you should be doing with your data. We’re going to tell you what we’re going to do with our data,” said Gwen Philipps, a citizen of the Ktunaxa Nation in a 2017 paper released by Open North, in collaboration with the British Columbia First Nations Data Governance Initiative.

It was part of a project called Decolonizing Data, which invited input from First Nations’ communities towards the creation of 10 key principles around data sovereignty to help inform discussions with the federal government.

As the editors of the 2016 book, Indigenous Data Sovereignty: Toward an Agenda, concluded, the “emergence of the global data revolution and associated new technologies can be a double-edged sword for indigenous peoples.” If communities “lose control” over their data, write its editors, “discrimination will persist.”

That’s true for other communities, too.

Consider how some members of Toronto’s Black community have called for the destruction of data collected through the practice known as carding, in which police randomly stop people, asking for identification. Analysis has frequently shown that Black people are disproportionately singled out. Some advocates don’t want that information to be stored without their consent and potentially shared with other agencies.

Yet that very same data can become critical in highlighting the existence of racism and can become the basis for further investigation, censure and correction. For instance, Renu Mandhane, head of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, has pointed out that the Commission requires the data in its ongoing inquiry into racial profiling and discrimination at the Toronto Police Service.

That’s because complaints from communities often don’t get the same attention from government and public institutions as do hard facts. In Ottawa, a three-year study of police traffic stops revealed that a disproportionate number of traffic stops targeted Middle Eastern men and women, and Black men. “The data can help demonstrate the lived experiences of communities,” Mandhane explained during a gathering of human rights and technology advocates in Toronto last spring.

The problem is that aside from Indigenous communities, which have established the First Nations Information Governance Centre, many communities are barely catching up to the advantages and pitfalls of data-gathering. At the government level, analysis has primarily focused on the impacts of open data on individual privacy and security.

We need cities to provide space for these discussions. A workshop on the topic in Ottawa in the fall of 2018 attracted nearly 100 people, many of whom wanted to learn more about just how their communities’ data was being used.

These are complex topics but they have become key in any human rights advocacy and in civic engagement and civic literacy.

Marginalized communities whose data have historically been missing, or ignored, should advocate for better information. That data could help substantiate claims of discrimination, or help strengthen policy decisions made about or for them. The problem is that we have yet to have robust conversations about just who will gather it, how, and to what end.

This article is adapted from a commentary piece in the Ottawa Citizen published on March 11, 2019.