How to use data as a tool for empowerment rather than oppression

Like words on a page or paint on a canvas, a message that is shared through data represents the thoughts and ideas of the person who shares it. Data analytics and the resulting insights communicated through visualizations have done tremendous good in the world, from easing and stopping disease to exposing exploitation and human rights violations. At the same time data analytics and algorithms all too often exclude women, the poor, and ethnic groups. How do we reconcile the potential of data to marginalize people and reinforce racism with its ability to end disease and expose inhuman practices? These two realities remind us that the same data, in the hands of different people, can produce wildly different outcomes for society because how people use data shows their vision of the world. That’s what makes our use of data to change the world at once exciting and alarming.

The failures of urban renewal policies, which often exacerbated problems in urban areas, caused some urban activists to fight the top-down planning methods that were being employed by technocratic planners. Jane Jacobs, an influential civic activist who became well known for her work in New York City in the 1960s, along with other civic actors such as Herbert J. Gans, led this charge. Jacobs, who lived in New York’s Greenwich Village, believed human-centered narratives were essential for understanding the economic and social needs of cities. Jacobs fought against using data-driven policies as evidence for building highways because the results were so devastating to entire neighborhoods — and saw the removal of these neighborhoods as a complete failure to acknowledge the importance that their residents and networks played in the larger economy of the city. Jacobs believed the public’s voice should speak louder than data in the decision-making process.

It is interesting to note that neither Jacobs nor Gans argue against data per se, but rather against how data was typically collected and analyzed. Their focus was on understanding how the social connections of place created certain ties that strengthened the urban economy. Their interest leaned more toward qualitative data, including local stories and imagery. Unlike the data employed by the technocratic planner, this data included the perspective of the public because it was built by them.

Jane Jacobs’s ideas about the city were often pitted against those of Robert Moses, New York City’s most influential technocratic planner, who focused on making New York a “modern” city of highways and high-rises. Moses was able to deploy urban renewal strategies that effectively severed community ties, similar to what happened in Overtown. He did this using data as evidence. Jacobs, in contrast, came to represent a more qualitative planner who understood that the social networks of people are what make the city a great place to live, and that preserving those social networks, which help build and maintain community, were a legitimate focus of the urban planner’s concern. For Jacobs, such social and support networks were often essential for low-income communities — and the modernist city as Moses envisioned posed a great threat to them.

1.27 “Mrs. Jane Jacobs, Chairman of the Comm. to Save the West Village, holds up documentary evidence at press conference at Lions Head Restaurant at Hudson & Charles Sts.” Jacobs used here a different type of data — signatures of citizens. Source: Photo by Phil Stanziola, World Telegram & Sun, December 5, 1961, LC-USZ-62–137838, Library of Congress,

Moses and Jacobs are often cited to represent two forms of city planning: the technocratic planner, who preferences the use of data to create evidence for modernist ideals, and the social planner, who preferences working to strengthen communities through building policies that support their needs and reinforce social ties. While the two are often juxtaposed, one using data and the other not, I would argue that both used data to create evidence for their visions of the city, but they did so to different ends. In fact, two famous pictures (figures 1.27 and 1.28) illustrate this eloquently: Jacobs is holding documents with citizens’ signatures, while Moses stands in front of one of his urban renewal projects holding a report full of data analytics offering evidence for the development. Both are powerful documents, powerful pieces of data. Jacobs used her data to save a neighborhood from destruction, and Moses displaced whole communities to realize his modernist dream. Here we can see how using data for city planning can be a double-edged sword: it can be used to empower some and marginalize others.

1.28 Robert Moses, Park Commissioner of New York City, with a 1939 model of the proposed Battery Bridge. Moses is known for using data as evidence to send highways through poor communities. Source: Photo by C. M. Spieglitz, World Telegram and Sun, 1939, LC-USZ62–136079 Library of Congress,

With both sides armed with their own forms of data (qualitative versus quantitative), the debates between the technocratic planners and community advocates helped drive the development of public participation planning, which sought to narrow the gap between those who had control of information and decisions and those who did not. Shelly Arnstein produced seminal work on this topic to advocate for greater knowledge sharing between what she called the “power-holders” and the “powerless” in public participation. Inherent to Arnstein’s approach was the need to engage broader publics, including communities typically marginalized by public participation processes, because they do not have the resources and data to advocate for their needs. Interactive education and community dialog became important tools to fill that gap. Similarly, James Glass, who writes about citizen participation in planning, believed that information exchange that involved education, building support, supplemental decision-making, and representational input could change power relationships within public engagement strategies. John Forester, a leader in the development of the field of participatory planning, believed that through interactive dialogue, power could be transferred, as dialogue allows groups to present their perspectives and ideas and thereby educate each other on critical issues. This early work was influential in my development of the Data Action method. The idea that engagement with data is one way to help overcome the oppression it might cause.

As opposition to the methods of technocratic planning rose in the 1960s, the urban theorist Kevin Lynch began to develop methods for transforming the map from a tool of control to one of public expression. His method, detailed in his book The Image of the City, involved asking community members to draw “mental maps” of their cities. Behind his cognitive mapping exercise is the idea that the elements of the city most important to community members will be those details they remember and document on maps they draw from memory. Therefore, looked at collectively, these cognitive maps show what is important to the people who live there.

Excerpted from Data Action: Using Data for Public Good by Sarah Williams. MIT University Press, 2020.

The MIT School of Architecture + Planning: Design is the space between people and their environment. This is our territory.

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