Data ethicists discuss how technology can impact racism at week-long public event

GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Leading data ethicist and criminal justice consultant Renée Cummings is arriving in Grand Rapids next week for a public series to discuss how data can be biased.

She will speak about how the use of biased data, particularly in relation to technology, can influence systemic racism.

Disrupting Data Injustice is a week-long exploration of how the use of data can drive racial disparities in criminal justice and incarceration, education, employment, healthcare and other community systems.

The series, open to the public, begins Monday, November 14th and will run through Thursday, November 17th with events at various locations.

The initiative is being led by The Delta Project, Greater Grand Rapids NAACP, West Michigan Chapter of Public Relations Society of America, Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, Grand Valley State University and a consortium of technology companies, according to a press release on the Delta Project.

Cummings, a former journalist and public relations practitioner, is a professor of practice in data science and the first data ethicist in residence at the University of Virginia.

According to the press release, she studies the impact of algorithms and artificial intelligence on criminal justice, particularly in communities of color and incarcerated populations.

“Organizations need to develop a culture that is ethical, open and committed to issues of accountability, transparency and explainability,” Cummings said.

“We need to understand bias and discrimination and how to rethink and redefine our data. Wherever you are, you represent multiple communities with different facets – in your industry or profession, the groups you actively support, in your neighborhood, in schools and at home.”

“We need informed people on the front lines of where the action is happening, where the technology is being designed, developed and deployed, and where the debates are happening about how to do it ethically.”

Here is a list of Disrupting Data Injustice events open to the public:

  • Monday, November 14: Grand Valley State University Disruptive Data Injustice: An Evening with Renée Cummings, 5-6:30 p.m. More information here.
  • Tuesday, November 15: Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce Rise Together: Diversity & Talent Summit – Keynote in the afternoon
  • Thursday, November 17: West Michigan PRSA, How to Talk About What We Don’t Want to Talk About: Having conversations about racial injustice. 4-5:30 p.m. online and in person at the Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation, 1530 Madison Avenue SE. Register here.

The West Michigan chapter of the Public Relations Society of America’s signature event, Diversity Equity and Inclusion, will focus on how businesses and community organizations can decide when and how to address injustices. The event is particularly relevant as West Michigan is drawing national attention following the assassination of Patrick Lyoya, the press release said.

Cle Jackson, President of the Greater Grand Rapids NAACP, emphasized the importance of educating communities disproportionately affected by data corruption.

“When we talk about race and justice, we talk about how discrimination, policing, law enforcement and incarceration practices affect Black communities,” Jackson said in a statement. “Focusing on the role that data plays in this space can help ensure that the ethical use of data improves public safety and community well-being for all stakeholders.”

Joel Van Kuiken, WMPRSA member and co-founder of the Delta Project, had the vision for the week-long event involving Cummings, according to the press release. He said he’s grateful that Cummings is sharing her knowledge and perspective with the Grand Rapids community.

“Biased data has the potential to create an unfair future, and we won’t even realize that’s happening,” Van Kuiken said. “That’s why it’s important to start discussing what our future should look like now.”

The week-long exploration is sponsored by: The Wege Foundation, The Heart of West Michigan United Way, The Michigan Municipal League, Grand Valley State University College of Education and Community Innovation, Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy, The Children’s Advocacy Center, The Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, Atomic Object, Carnevale and more, according to the press release.

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