Combating the hidden biases in data

Submitted photos (l-r) Marika Pfefferkorn and Aasim Shabazz

Local organization seeks to demystify data use and emerging technologies 

As technology continues to advance, the need to create and make transparent ethical practices can at times be an afterthought, especially when understanding the use and importance of big data.

Leading the charge is the Twin Cities Innovation Alliance (TCIA), a social venture that serves as a co-creation space for coalitions, organizations, entrepreneurs, thought leaders and policymakers interested in thinking about innovation with a diverse lens, not as a silver bullet.

Central to this work is TCIA’s focus on SMART Cities and Connected Communities. A critical component in SMART Cities is education. At the foundation of TCIA’s success is engaging communities in learning about emerging technological trends and their impact on society and linked to action.

Founded in 2017 by community organizers and leaders Aasim Shabazz and Marika Pfefferkorn, the Twin Cities Innovation Alliance is at the forefront of change in this big data moment by raising awareness, educating, engaging, equipping and activating individuals, communities and organizations in ensuring data serves the public good.  

In its three-year existence, TCIA has partnered with local organizations like Koinonia Leadership Academy, Macalester College, Civic Eagle, and the University of Minnesota and with national organizations like Communities for Just Schools Fund, Data for Black Lives, Data Funders Collaborative, Center for Democracy and Technology, Brookings Institute, Project Evidence, and Dignity in Schools Campaign

A long list of community leaders, entrepreneurs and academics are focused on the ultimate objective of transforming the Twin Cities into an inclusive, forward-thinking, innovative, global Smart City that is anchored in community through a human-centered approach. As a part of national and local problem-solving eco-systems, TCIA invests in inspiring others to be part of transformative change through learning exchanges, anchored in restorative justice, data for public good, and SMART City governance.

“At the Twin Cities Innovation Alliance, our work is about raising awareness, educating and equipping folks about the impact of big data. This is particularly important for BIPOC and rural communities, but it has implications for everyone. As a result, we need to fully engage people to work together to put measures in place that will protect us and ensure that when our data is used, it is used in service to the public good and with our permission,” said Pfefferkorn.

Advocating on behalf of BIPOC communities has long been a focus for Pfefferkorn, who spent many years tackling issues of inequity across nonprofit and education arenas. Since then, she and co-founder Shabazz have looked at the intersection between policy, economics, technology, and data and its impact on communities. 

“When it comes to technology, data, and design, oftentimes BIPOC folks are left out of design, feedback loops and decision-making. TCIA is shifting this paradigm, this outdated notion, ensuring that no data and no policy is designed for us or about us without us.” Pfefferkorn explained. 

“We are working with colleges like Macalester and Michigan Tech to ensure that data scientists are skilled in working with community in understanding their role and responsibility in shaping the meaning and context in and with communities.

Ultimately, we have to make sure there are levers in place for data scientists and researchers to understand how their decisions can impact folks on the ground.” 

Amid the pandemic of COVID-19, remote learning has become a hot topic of discussion for parents and educators alike. With this comes the discussion of data and how it’s used and collected within the virtual learning space. For Pfefferkorn, this timely discussion further illustrates why it’s important to discuss the effects of data and technology in BIPOC communities. 

“For parents and caregivers, especially during this time of remote learning, it’s important for families to understand that new technologies are being used across schools to monitor social media, track attendance, and flag students suspected of certain behaviors. It’s important to understand that this comes with a cost and is often layered with bias.

“The problem is that most of the time, families are not even aware nor do they have the option to opt-out. This is a critical conversation that we’re elevating. We need everyone at the table to bring their perspective and lived experience to answer the question, ‘Why are we doing this?’”

Another critical conversation taking place is around FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act law), which is supposed to protect student and family privacy. In our TCIA research we’ve uncovered that FERPA does not do enough to protect students and families, leaving communities with a false sense of security based on a law that hasn’t kept pace with the emerging technologies of the 21st Century.” 

Extended dialogue about emerging technologies and data practices will also take place during the organization’s inaugural and virtual Unconference November 5-7. Under the theme of “Data 4 Public Good,” the conference aims to bring together a collection of community leaders, policymakers, creators, and designers as well as students, parents, and school administrators.

Pfefferkorn describes the Unconference as a milestone in a larger movement to raise awareness, engage, equip and activate everyone to be in relationship with the use of their data. “We may not know all the ways our data is being used, but now is the time to find out and now is the time to weigh in.

“As we say at TCIA, ‘No data about us without us!’ Our goal for these [conference] sessions is to build the muscle across stakeholders and communities so we all can engage in a vision for the future where data is in service to the public good.” 

For more information or to register, visit
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