“Science at its core is systematically racist and sexist,” said computational biologist Laura Boykin at the WIRED 25 conference in San Francisco on Friday.
Boykin works for the Cassava Virus Action Project, which uses DNA sequencing technology to help farmers in Africa find pathogens in the staple crop in real time. But in a conversation on the promise and perils of data, she said that most scientists are “asleep at the wheel” when it comes to empowering the underserved with data. Referencing a study published in Nature last week suggesting that modern human life may have originated in Botswana, Boykin said, “Nature should never have published the study. Local communities had no access to the data. How is that OK?”
Malkia Devich-Cyril, her fellow panelist, had an equally grim assessment of how US technology companies handle the data of communities of color. “They know everything about us and we know nothing about them,” said Devich-Cyril, cofounder of the media and technology rights and representation organization MediaJustice. Bringing equality to data ownership, usage, and storage “is ultimately and fundamentally about control, not only about who controls democracy, but also who controls your daily life.”
What are the resolutions? Regulation, for starters, says Devich-Cyril. But policymakers should be mindful of downstream effects. Police body cameras, for example, were initially thought to be “this incredible saving grace to police brutality, but I said wait a minute, you’re not considering all that data that’s being to be stored. That camera is facing me.” Citizens also need to keep “pressuring, pressuring, pressing” technology companies to change. When a company like Facebook announcing a civil rights audit, “it’s not a Facebook decision.” It’s the result of relentless pressure from human and civil rights groups like MediaJustice.
“The movement is there,” Devich-Cyril added. “The question is whether is it going to be enough? We are dealing with an incredibly corrupt administration, but in addition to that incredibly corrupt administration, we are dealing with an incredibly corrupt economic system that advantages tech companies over poor people.”
In the sciences, says Boykin, communities of color must be included in the design, collection, and ownership of data. But data must first help them meet basic needs. The women Boykin works with in Africa have taught her that “two things matter, your health and food. Everything else is a bonus … right now we’re just making sure these farmers aren’t hungry.”