Conference preview: Data for diversity

Lawyer, author, and advocate, Renata Ávila will bring her powerful message about how data can empower and improve equality to the DDI’s conference in September. We caught up with her for a preview of what she’ll discuss.

Whether technology is ‘open’ or ‘closed’ may not be an issue many people think about. We tend to think of ourselves as technology users, but what if we live in a world where many technologies exclude huge numbers of people because of how they are designed and created? That’s an issue Renata Ávila has made it her mission to bring to light in her role as chief executive of the Open Knowledge Foundation.

An international lawyer, author and advocate, Renata was appointed CEO of the Open Knowledge Foundation in October 2021, bringing vast experience in access to knowledge, free software, freedom of expression, policymaking and global digital rights. She also co-founded the <A+> Alliance for Inclusive Algorithms, as an effort to prototype, pilot and deploy AI that serves all and advances gender and race equality instead of exponentially increasing harm.

The departing point of it is design. In her latest role, Renata wants to focus on putting openness as a design principle at the centre of building digital infrastructures to deliver open knowledge for all, leading to improved lives and helping the planet. But digital infrastructures should be combined with new governance and community models, too, to ensure sustainability and accessibility.

Despite being into its second decade, there are ever-increasing challenges for the OKF; as Renata points out: “We are at an interesting moment; digital technology is no longer new, there is a general understanding of how it works and big expectations or fears on how is going to shape our future. Digital technologies are, somehow, infrastructure, but also the building blocks of tomorrow. And the principles they will follow from now on will determine whether we use them to concentrate the power and wealth of very few or make them enablers to access and descentralise the benefits.”

Renata will be revealing more about her mission when she visits Edinburgh University on 29 September to deliver a keynote speech at the Scotsman/Data-Driven Innovation conference on doing data for equality, diversity and inclusivity.

“Open, democratised technology together with open knowledge – open access, reproducible research and open data – could unlock the potential of the most advanced technologies and knowledge to save our planet,” explains Renata. “To save us. If we know how to solve the problem, that solution should not remain locked, but should be open for everyone to access and localise its potential. And we are in the middle of an emergency, so it needs to be done as soon as possible. Knowledge, science and technology should be democratised and should not belong only to closed labs. That is the real equaliser, globally.”

But making it open to localisation and adaptation is also relevant. Examples of algorithms used to assess applicants for finance credit or insurance excluded women. Other technologies have been deployed with Western-centric biases in their datasets, unable to detect diseases or identify bodies belonging to non-caucasic races, or pigmentation problems in dark skins, as the datasets are overwhelmingly white.

Renata believes that one of the solutions is to build better conditions to improve the quality of the data sets and the technologies applied to digital infrastructures. A more participator design system, with a greater range of disciplines involved in creating digital technologies will deliver different results to what Silicon Valley delivers. “The first step,” says Renata, “is to realise the complexity of deploying certain technologies, requiring more than just engineers. We need sociologists, anthropologists, urbanists, usability experts, ethnographers, linguists… it is an infrastructure that, contrary to the images which usually illustrate any technology, is not just bits and devices, but humans, people at the centre of it.”

The need for more women working in tech companies is another well-recognised issue, but Renata believes that addressing the gender balance of the workforce alone would not promise change. She explains, “The whole way algorithms are created and the datasets feeding them needs to change priorities and move from reactive to proactive, throughout the whole cycle. From conception to deployment and evaluation of AI systems, we should be studying how to serve people better, and serving better includes taking steps to massively reduce and even eradicate all gender inequalities in our public digital systems.”

Another important issue is building a better understanding of where the design of technologies involve the use of public data. It is here, argues Renata, that governments – especially local government – can play an important role in ensuring diversity, equality and inclusivity.

She explains: “Local governments are often the first contact citizens have with the ‘state’, so are the best labs for ensuring diversity and inclusivity in data collection and how it’s used in decision making. If the data collection is participatory, citizens trust the data and the results out of it better.”

Of course, involving citizens means data literacy needs to be part of the overarching plan. Indeed, Renata is keen to point out that public interest in access to information is a major factor in making a positive change: “It’s important to generate demand for access to datasets from citizens. But to do this, citizens need to know and understand what information is relevant to them. For example, they might want to learn about flood hazards or air quality information. And the public administration might have the answer hidden in a data set. By requesting it, and finding the answer and the data backing the answer, the trust in the government and democratic processes increases. So I think this is like a muscle that should be exercised often, asking the government then asking for the source material backing their answers.  It’s also about ensuring agility in the release of data and its use. Especially in the era of fake news, it’s important to be able to combat misinformation with reliable data, and that everyone knows where to find it, where to request it.”

Barcelona and Amsterdam are among the cities Renata believes stand out as good examples of listening to and engaging with citizens when shaping policy. Of course, Edinburgh is another city aiming to ‘do data right’, having made the Data-Driven Innovation initiative the biggest part of its City Region Deal in 2018. So what would Renata’s message be to the leaders of the DDI initiative?

“It’s encouraging to see the DDI initiative promoting interdisciplinary research and innovation, but I’d like to see DDI ensuring it has a positive impact in people’s lives who are more excluded and making data meaningful to all people and empowering them.”


Renata Ávila speaks at the Scotsman/DDI Data Conference

29th September 2022, South Hall Complex, The University of Edinburgh

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