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Data for Whom, Data from Whom: How Social Movements Might Create Value for Their Community Data Practices

Data for Whom, Data from Whom: How Social Movements Might Create Value for Their Community Data Practices

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Tags: Governmental regulations, Race and ethnicity, Spatial-temporal systems

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Many social justice movements believe data are powerful enough to bring their movements closer to their goals. This logic can be traced back to corporate contexts where organizations raced to prove to their stakeholders that they were the more efficient, and therefore more capable enterprises. In these contexts, data are often viewed as quantifiable representations of something discrete, complete, and portable [1] However, my ethnographic research is interested in how data-driven logic has spilled over into other contexts, including social justice movements and civic action where definitions of data and their value are more nebulous. In particular, I'm interested in questions of power and value. What power do data have to guide and enact social change and whose data are deemed worthy of informing decisions? My research explores these questions through a data-driven social movement—environmental justice or EJ—as it is pursued by advocates in my home community, West Dallas, Texas.

West Dallas is a region of nearly 30,000 residents who, until recently, have largely identified as either Black or Latinx. The area has nearly 100 industrial sites within its two-mile radius, and it has a reputation for being dangerous and dilapidated. However, as one interviewee recounted to me, West Dallas did not end up this way by happenstance. It eroded into its current state from decades of systemic disenfranchisement, fueled by racist city planning and policies. Throughout my research, I have observed West Dallas residents and community allies work to demonstrate how racist social values were embedded into local land use laws, zoning codes, discriminatory housing practices known as redlining, voting laws, and funding structures that were deliberately designed to fail poor Black and Brown residents in ways still reinforced by social actors today. However, no one person or stakeholder is being singled out as willfully, maliciously racist in these cycles. Instead, West Dallas EJ activists have begun mobilizing to demonstrate a truth long since articulated by critical race theorists and information science scholars alike, that when a system becomes embedded with certain values, people and physical artifacts don't need to share those values. They just need to benefit from them well enough to keep reinforcing that system.

One of the most poignant ways I find activists working to disrupt this perpetuation of inequitable social values has been through collecting, analyzing, and sharing data. West Dallas residents have a storied history of fighting for EJ in their communities. These efforts have been renowned in West Dallas since sociologist Robert Bullard first developed the term in his 1990 book Dumping in Dixie, which spotlighted the environmental efforts of six Black communities, including West Dallas, to define the EJ movement as an attempt for residents to name and push back against the concentration of toxic industrial facilities in poor Black communities [2]. Bullard observed EJ struggles heavily relied on data generated by scientific and technical experts—people and institutions outside these low-educational attainment communities. For West Dallas and its efforts to shut down and then remediate a noxious lead smelter at the heart of the region, the result was one industrial closure, but the underlying inequities remained intact.

back to top  Equal Access to Environmental Decision-Making

Today, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ensures the quality-of-life West Dallas residents fought for throughout the 1970s and 1980s through its Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights. The EPA defines EJ as: "the just treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of income, race, color, national origin, Tribal affiliation, or disability, in agency decision-making and other Federal activities that affect human health and the environment" [3].

West Dallas residents were deeply engaged in the collection side of their data practices but lacked the expertise for analyzing and making data meaningful.

Moreover, the Office argues this goal will only be achieved once everyone enjoys both "the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards," and "equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work." However, current environmental conditions and the path toward such a broad definition of justice may vary between communities, depending on who is considered entitled to "equal access" to environmental decision-making and what that equality looks like in praxis.

In the context of West Dallas, I find three stakeholders most connected to the region's environmental conditions, either toward or away from the language of EJ: West Dallas residents, civic officials, and industrial corporations. Foremost among these groups are West Dallas residents. West Dallas is home to more than a dozen officially designated neighborhoods, many of which have their own neighborhood associations and membership in a larger West Dallaswide coalition. These neighborhood association members and leaders became my first ethnographic participants as I began fieldwork in the fall of 2020. Not all of these coalition members were actively involved in West Dallas environmental issues; but those who were often recalled being spurred to EJ activism in the wake of particular inciting incidents. For two of my interviewees, this mobilization occurred when the City of Dallas and former West Dallas City council-woman Monica Alonzo incentivized a concrete batch plant to relocate from one part of West Dallas under rapid gentrification. The cement plant ultimately chose to move directly behind a middle school, which has since shut down, in part due to childhood asthma concerns caused by the relocation of the cement plant. For these interviewees, this event solidified their feelings that their politicians "didn't care anything about our kids." Determined to change the status quo, one interviewee established the coalition environmental justice subgroup, which non-West Dallas environmental groups now respect as a sort of gatekeeper between West Dallas and potentially explorative environmental groups. In the past four years, one such group reached out to this EJ subcommittee in an attempt to show West Dallas residents new pathways to empower themselves through data collection, particularly from air quality monitors, to push toward civic change.

The next phase of my research sought to expand beyond the data practices of West Dallas residents and their technoscientific allies to understand how their work has been shaping data practices within the City of Dallas, and even generating new ones. In the summer of 2023, I began to explore the data practices of the municipal, state, and EPA civic officials who work within a plethora of offices and teams dedicated to regulating environmental conditions in communities including, but not limited to, West Dallas.

There are also the industrial corporations that either manufacture or warehouse their products within one of the 97 industrial sites still operating in West Dallas today. Though I have observed these stakeholders in public hearings and heard secondhand reports about them, I have not yet had the opportunity to interview many corporate industrial employees. I look forward to this changing in the future.

Each of these stakeholders brings their own worldviews about current environmental conditions in West Dallas and what EJ means for the region. As these stakeholders vie, within and among themselves, to center their vision for the future of West Dallas, I find each stakeholder developing practices of collecting and analyzing what they call "data" in efforts to legitimize the claim in environmental decision-making and sway others toward their vision. My research takes an ethnographic approach to understanding this new generation of data-driven EJ activism since its emergence in West Dallas in 2020.

back to top  Defining Data for EJ in West Dallas

No two social actors shared a singular definition of data and approach to data collection and analysis. Rather, the question "what are data" is deeply grounded within and situated in the environmental decision-making work of each social actor. For example, through extensive ethnographic observation and interviewing, I found industrial corporations largely defined data as fiscal reports and measurements produced by their air monitors or various forms of site-specific pollution testing equipment. These data were used to inform a range of corporate industrial actions such as pursuing particular emissions permits or projecting timelines for their closure and relocation. Meanwhile, various municipal offices within the city of Dallas were responsible for environmental conditions across vast swaths in the city, therefore they supplemented the data defined and provided to them by industrial corporations with other forms of what civic offices also saw as data, namely measurements from EPA-grade air quality monitors dispersed throughout the city, temperature sensors for urban heat studies, and citizen complaints of environmental health conditions reported through the city's non-emergency hotline, 3-1-1. These data proved vital as city and state officials deliberated over permit applications from industrial sites, assessed the availability of public health resources, and mapped out future urban planning projects.

West Dallas EJ activists often welcomed, and even insisted on, more frequent, higher-quality data from industrial corporations and civic offices. Access to these data enabled activists to gauge the political and economic landscape of the region and to deliberate on their best pathways to intervene in environmental decision-making. Where data was scarce or failed to reflect the residents' lived experiences and needs, West Dallas EJ activists also engaged in data collection independent of any official corporate or civic apparatus. Such efforts included air quality readings from low-cost, easily deployed sensors strategically installed on homes near industrial sites.

Uniquely, the West Dallas residents who participated in this research often spoke of data in reference to their quantifications of people in West Dallas who had been mobilized to support one particular cause or issue. For example, one resident I spoke with places the utmost importance on voting records and the number of registered voters in West Dallas. More voters, she reflected, meant more political power. Others invited me to join "door-knocking" campaigns wherein activists asked residents to sign petitions or answer survey questions meant to demonstrate the public will of residents in public hearings or closed-door negotiations. In the summer of 2021, the goal of one such data collection effort was to gather community input for the creation of a neighborhood-led land use and land zoning plan, which could be submitted to become part of city planning policy. Other West Dallas EJ concerns largely focus on the poor public health outcomes that persist in the neighborhood as a result of pollution emitted from the nearly 100 industrial facilities in the region. Though their paths to achieving in EJ may vary considerably, most of the West Dallas EJ activists I spoke with believed the ultimate end goal of their activism was expelling all industrial sites from the region.

What power do data have to guide and enact social change and whose data are deemed worthy of informing decisions?

However, here I also found a stark division of labor between West Dallas residents and their activist allies. With few exceptions, West Dallas residents were deeply engaged in the collection side of their data practices but lacked the expertise for analyzing and making data meaningful. For this, they relied upon EJ allies with more scientific and technical expertise.

back to top  Data for Whom, Data from Whom

This lack of a unifying data practice has produced deep schisms within and across stakeholders, particularly as civic officials and industrial representatives dispute whether what the community collected merits the title "data" at all and to what extent these community data practices contributed substantially to environmental decision-making in West Dallas.

"I'm a bit of a data snob," an employee from the city of Dallas Office of Environmental Quality & Sustainability (OEQS) told me in an interview. "How do you know [community air quality sensor data is] accurate? What are [West Dallas residents and EJ activists] doing to calibrate it? What are [their] data quality objectives? Are [they] plus or minus 2%? 10%? And the Purple monitors tend to measure high…they're not calibrating them at all. And they're not correcting the measurements, but then they're going crazy when there's a single measurement that exceeds two standards, and it's like, well, it's supposed to be a 24hour standard, not an instantaneous, and so…but they're stirring the pot."

This last point alluded to the value of community-led efforts to collect air quality data in pushing the city of Dallas to install industrial-grade programming monitors and start collecting data of their own to support EJ efforts across the city. The trouble, I find, is that these well-meaning efforts slightly miss the point of community-led environmental justice data practices. From West Dallas EJ activists I have spoken with, the most important reason community members engaged in data practices was to center their voices in decisions made for and about environmental conditions in their communities. By denying the value of community data practices in these decision-making processes, civic and industrial corporations were usurping community efforts toward self-determination. A poignant example of this happened last year at a community meeting wherein OEQS attempted to present their data.

On that night, the presenter launched into his presentation by describing how many monitors had been installed, where they were located, and a quick disclaimer that the data he was showing from the website had neither been validated nor verified by an external third party. Furthermore, he explained, "there are no easy, universal standards for analyzing this data." Despite this, the data has already proved meaningful in addressing environmental concerns.

As he talked, he gave one example of the installation of a monitor near an under-construction concrete batch plant that showed huge spikes of NO2 levels in the area, despite the plant not yet being open. After meeting with the plant owners to discuss these readings and possible emissions sources, they concluded the idling of the contractor's construction vehicles within the proximity of the monitors was the likely source. The data expert practically beamed as he recounted how the cement plant owner then spoke to the contractor about the vehicle idling problem, and those same NO2 spikes had not shown up since. He concluded by saying that was the goal of his data work, "trying to find little problems before they become a big problem," and that he hoped "we can use this data to react" as situations require.

His presentation was met with general applause and congratulation, with one West Dallas resident, who is also an environmental commission member, adding, "For years, all we had were Purple Air [which is the name of low-cost, community deployed air sensors] and veteran toxicologists with implication here that those toxicologists and the data they owned/generated were outside the community and its desire for ownership. This data, while it may not be to the EPA standard, is high caliber… [it is] hyperlocal data to bring the powers that be, to prove their environmental injustice."

Most of the West Dallas EJ activists I spoke with believed the ultimate end goal of their activism was expelling all industrial sites from the region

The city of Dallas official, apparently quite pleased at the compliment, concurred that Purple Air monitors right out of the box are not very accurate. But all were not universally pleased by this presentation. During the comment period, a new voice, frustrated and offended, pushed back by saying, "It's belittling to minimize community-led efforts. Our bodies are our barometers when we go outside, especially since this data is less than 90 days old." This was Jaime, a second-generation West Dallas resident who had moved back to West Dallas recently to care for her ailing mother, only to encounter community-led data practices that showed how pollution in the area put her newborn daughter at risk for chronic pulmonary diseases such as asthma.

The presenter replied: "This is data we can use beyond the subjective."

Jamie: "I agree. I'm not disagreeing. I just think the Commissioner's comment on residents reacting for no reason is belittling."

The Commissioner: Okay, I certainly did not

A confusion of voices spoke over each other all at once.

" We're hoping to…"

"There's a time for Purple Air monitors…good for getting people excited…. we're past that..about time to see [the] City of Dallas be reactionary…"

"We're not trying to dismiss any-body…all information is good, just have to realize what it's good for…"

"We know poor AQ leads to poor lung health; we just don't have the data integrated from everywhere to show how…. Maybe layering Purple Air Data with City data…"

In arguments such as these data has become proxies for political power as West Dallas EJ activists, civic officials, and industrial corporations struggle to find meaning or value in community members seeking to engage in environmental decision-making about the reality and future of West Dallas.

back to top  A Better Path Forward

As I turn to the final phase of my dissertation research, I look out at the wide, contentious landscape of West Dallas environmental data practices and reflect that there needs to be a better way. I believe that I, a computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW) scholar interested in data practices and infrastructure, might provide them with a path forward to seeking those answers. West Dallas EJ activists have already opened new possibilities for what Carl DiSalvo [4] refers to as "design experiments in civics" particularly, around more participatory approaches to creating policies for the city of Dallas. I draw inspiration from these efforts as I now turn my attention toward a stakeholder relationship that has received comparative attention from activists and CSCW scholars alike—the data that emerges from and infrastructure dynamics between EJ community activists and industrial facilities.

back to top  References

[1] Loukissas, Y. A. All Data Are Local: Thinking Critically in a Data-Driven Society. MIT Press, 2019.

[2] Bullard, R. Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality. Westview Press, 1990.

[3] Learn About Environmental Justice. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Last updated April 26, 2024; https://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/learn-about-environmental-justice

[4] DiSalvo, C. Design as Democratic Inquiry: Putting Experimental Civics into Practice. MIT Press, 2022.

back to top  Author

Tajanae Harris is an information science Ph.D. candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research is interested in sustainable development in wealthy nations, particularly as they grapple with the colonial, racist roots.

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