The Importance of Decolonizing Data

Photo credit: Cottonbro/Pexels

Homa Reto, The Human Network, offers an inclusive and anti-colonial, community-based approach to civil society organization. Having the people as their central focus, Homa Reto recognizes the importance and need of decolonizing data used in community help and political organization. Currently, there seems to be a common understanding of data as a neutral and universally good force when used in the context of development. However, in reality, a much more critical stance needs to be taken. How can data actually amplify existing injustices even when used with good intentions, and why is decolonizing data of paramount importance for successful disaster risk governance?

To answer this question, there needs to be a better understanding of data colonialism. The ways in which data is oftentimes extracted today have striking parallels to colonial resource extraction patterns from the past, as it mostly serves to make high-income countries profit from the data they collect worldwide while making low-income countries dependent and keeping the enhancement of their own data capabilities and economies limited. This is often replicated, also by development actors, not because they intend any harm, but because they forget to critically assess the data lifecycle, the narratives it gives a platform to, and the fact that data is always situated in a specific sociocultural context. The Human Network attempts to break this cycle by actively taking an anti-colonial stance in which responsible data processing is practiced, and local knowledge is valued and encouraged in their participatory and community-based governance. 

This need to break the cycle and to actively work on decolonizing data stems from the drastic real-life implications that result from data colonialism. Through hindering the advancement of local data capabilities, this keeps colonial power injustices in place, thus further perpetuating problematic notions of “developed” vs. “developing” and “Global North” vs. “Global South”. In addition, collecting and processing data in ways that are exclusively based on Western concepts serves to further delegitimize local and indigenous knowledge while failing to meet the needs of those in need, a mistake that can cost lives in the context of disasters.

Decolonizing data is about ownership (Photo by: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels)

Homa Reto designs its mobile app in a participatory way to allow members of a community to decide, for themselves, which knowledge they want to incorporate into their supportive practices, thus tackling knowledge inequality and marginalization. Instead of collecting data on marginalized communities to showcase deficits and gaps in these communities, people are given authority over their own data and decision-making as the Human Network acknowledges, values, and relies on the strengths that all of these internally diverse communities have. In that way, data is no longer used to make these strengths and the communities themselves invisible, while serving the profit of those in power, but it is used as a tool to empower you as a data owner in a united effort for more effective help and social organization. 

As policies are based on data, it is of uttermost importance to be represented in such data fairly, that is, highlighting both the needs and strengths of all communities. Only if this is the case, and diversity is really taken into account when creating new policies, they help to create a more just future. It is high time to recognize each other’s strengths, to truly listen to and include non-Western, diverse knowledge, and to make sure to continuously strive for the decolonization of data and its use in development. If you want to learn more about Homa Reto, our mission and philosophy, and how participatory social organization can help increase inclusion and social justice, visit the ‘About’ Section of our Website. You can make a difference by rethinking the neutrality of data and by engaging with and supporting participatory-based governance applications, such as Homa Reto, that make sure that everyone gets the help they need and deserve in the light of crisis as the new normality.

Author: Julia Stölben

Sources:
https://crosscut.com/2019/05/abigail-echo-hawk-art-and-science-decolonizing-data
https://montanabudget.org/post/time-to-decolonize-data
https://www.ictworks.org/decolonizing-data-for-development/#.YtPM1C-21QI
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=km65FK2e5Sg
https://purdue.edu/critical-data-studies/collaborative-glossary/data-colonialism.php

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