Conference report – Data for diversity

Data enthusiasts from a wide range of backgrounds came together on 29 September for the Scotsman/DDI conference, held at the University of Edinburgh.

The capital’s flagship data event focused this year on the potential for data and artificial intelligence to promote diversity, equality and inclusivity.

The first of the day’s keynote speakers, Dr Nakeema Stefflbauer, founder and CEO of Frauenloop, highlighted the asymmetry of AI and data with her talk ‘data insiders and outsiders’. Dr Stefflbauer raised concerns around the power dynamics between those who provide their data and the organisations who use it to create and process datasets. The current situation is akin to a ‘prison’ with one-way intelligence, warned Dr Stefflbauer.

However, delegates were shown many great examples of projects attempting to redress the balance – such as ‘Where is my transport?’, a source of high-quality mobility and location data for emerging markets, and New York’s STOP initiative (Surveillance Technology Oversight Project), which encourages greater individual agency and participation from citizens.

The importance of avoiding ‘expert bubbles’ and of asking who algorithms help and who they harm emerged as common themes of the day. In her closing remarks Dr Stefflbauer said those with a less optimal experience of tech services should be ‘brought into the centre’ of the process, commenting, “Data professionals need to remember humans are attached to the data they use, and those who leverage AI and its data need to consider how they would want their own experiences captured.”

The first panel discussion highlighted innovative uses of data and AI to shine a light on inequality and bias, with contributions from Francesca Lawson and Alastair Fensome from the widely acclaimed Gender Pay Gap App. Next up, panellists discussed data for more diverse and inclusive health outcomes. There were many great insights such as how joining health with community services data could help explain why homeless people end up in A&E on average 54 times a year, and how hesitancy about including pregnant women in healthcare trials means they aren’t represented in the data on which results and subsequent recommendations are based.


Inspiring vision

The second keynote, Renata Avilla, CEO at the Open Knowledge Foundation, set out a vision of how another digital architecture is possible – designed with inclusive, sustainable, and humane systems. Renata likened the current digital architecture to a broken building, one built with flaws in the design. “Let’s be inspired by design principles that put humans at the centre,” said Renata.

The audience was given examples of education authorities providing laptops to school pupils who live in areas where housing is not secure and there are high crime rates, resulting in the laptops becoming targets for theft. Innovation should be ‘localisable’, not centralised, said Renata.

In the panel session on diverse data workforces, writer and researcher Kevin Guyan explained how important it is to understand that even just uncovering and collecting data involves constructing it to some extent. “Data is rarely just sitting there, buried, waiting to be uncovered,” said Kevin. “It’s already political and historical before it comes to be interpreted.”

Fellow panellist, Audrey Cameron, Manager for the British Sign Language Data Glossary Project, explained how many young deaf people have been excluded from education because sign language was effectively banned in some areas, resulting in very limited vocabulary in disciplines such as science.

Wrapping up the day, DDI’s executive director Jarmo Eskelinen praised the mix of vision and concrete examples and highlighted that the DDI initiative is working with partners to promote the acquisition of data skills in schools, colleges and workplaces across the Edinburgh city region. Jarmo added that 2023 marks the DDI’s fifth anniversary and the opening of the last of its six hubs, when the complete innovation network will pivot into its delivery phase, with the ambition of positioning the region as data capital of Europe.

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