Inspire to Change: How we think about data and data use By A. Rafael Johnson

Uncategorized Nov 29, 2019

The conventional way of looking at data is very effective at keeping the complex and messy lives of people as far from power as possible. It says that the highly educated and wealthy define the problems, solutions, and measures of success. Everything that falls outside of these pre-definitions is unreliable, un-measurable, unverifiable, or untrustworthy. That way keeps wealth in the hands of philanthropy and industry, decisions in the mouths of policymakers, and knowledge in the academy. That way maintains the status quo.


But what if we don’t maintain the status quo? What if we challenge these ideas about data? What if, instead of using our methods to create and use reliable datasets so people can trust in our analyses and make data-driven decisions, what if we start with trust and see what happens? What if we start by trusting the people in the communities we work with, and then create the conditions that lets them trust us? What if they're the ones making decisions based on their lives, witches and all? What happens when everything they say and do is valid, trustworthy, verifiable, and measurable? 

Over the years, Nora and I have generated a series of statements we rely on to guide our data inquiry. These are still a work in progress.

  • Data is not neutral and neither are we.
  • Data is a value-laden judgment.
  • Data is only meaningful when it is meaningful to the people who created the data. 
  • Data doesn’t always look like data. Sometimes data looks like dinner, graffiti, or a hug between old friends. Data can be a quilt, a crying child, a broken-down car, a poem.
  • Even the word data distances ourselves from our shared human connection. Good data reveals our shared humanity. 
  • Data is not acquired in a transaction but given in a relationship. 
  • Working with data can be sacred work. Working with data can be healing work.
  • Instead of using methodological rigor to generate trust in your results, start with trust and see what happens. 
  • Don’t reduce people’s lives to the problems that powerful people think they can solve easily. 
  • Something seen by one person can still be true.
  • We cannot ‘methods’ ourselves to a more just, equitable, and beautiful world. We cannot ‘evaluate’ ourselves to a more just, equitable, and beautiful world. Trust and love might work. 
  • People encode their most precious data and wisdom in their arts. Look to their art and see what’s been preserved. 
  • Concepts like efficiency, accountability, implementation fidelity, impact, ROI, etc. tend to maintain the status quo. Ask who these paradigms serve, what they create, and what results from their use? Ask if there’s another way. 

Question: If you’re rethinking your data practices, how will these ideas take form in budgeting, coding, analysis, or reporting? 

Connect: A. Rafael Johnson is the Vice-President of Inspire to Change. A novelist, he also teaches at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and the Loft Literary Center. His novel The Through was a finalist for the 2018 Minnesota Book Award. 


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