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Is Data Justice a SMART goal?

By Mildred Achoch.

The British Institute of Eastern Africa held an event in October 2019 titled “Data Justice, an agenda worth pursuing in Kenya?”

In “A Structural Model and Manifesto for Data Justice for International Development” Richard Heeks cites a paper that outlines three mainstream views of data justice, which goes to show just how broad this concept of data justice is. The three are instrumental data justice, procedural data justice, and distributive rights-based justice. The first deals with the fair use of data and focuses on the outcome of the use of data. The second focuses on fair handling of data and the third focuses on rights of privacy, access, ownership, and representation. These three views begin to paint a picture of what data justice is and yet, the paper notes that the three still have shortcomings. This is where structural data justice comes into play: “the degree to which society contains and supports the data-related institutions, relations and knowledge systems necessary for the realization of the values comprised in a good life.”

Towards the end of the event, a question was asked about the nature of justice and whether justice is an attainable goal. After all, justice is quite subjective. One of the speakers agreed that indeed justice is subjective and may not necessarily be an attainable goal but it is still a goal worth aiming for. I agree. I would also like to add that we actually already have frameworks that can bring down the lofty ideal of justice into a practical and attainable goal. One of the things I learned while pursuing my International Business Administration degree, and which I now apply in my career as a screenwriter (regarding what the protagonist wants in a film) is the concept of setting S.M.A.R.T goals. S.M.A.R.T goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable/Achievable, Realistic and Timebound.

Data justice is a wonderful goal. However, it is not a S.M.A.R.T goal because what exactly is justice (specific)? How do you measure data justice (measurable)? By when should this data justice be achieved (timebound)? In our current context, is it even realistic to pursue data justice (resources, goodwill)?

My proposal to help us answer the above questions is to use existing frameworks to seek data justice. The most comprehensive and S.M.A.R.T one that comes to mind is the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which have a clear deadline of 2030. Each of the 17 goals has clear targets, making the whole exercise measurable. The last page of a document distributed in an SDG meeting I attended informs us that: “In accordance with paragraph 75 of Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the goals and targets will be followed-up and reviewed using a set of global indicators. These will be complemented by indicators at the regional and national levels, developed by member states.”

The speakers gave interesting insights on the topic of data justice. As someone who is a champion of the SDGs, I could not help but envision how the speakers’ proposals would fit in the larger framework of the SDGs. For example, user education was deemed important in the search for data justice. User education touches on SDG 4 (Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all), SDG 5 (Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls) and SDG 8 (Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all), especially since now we are in the information age or Industry 4.0 as one of the speakers said. It also touches on SDG 9 (resilient infrastructure, inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation), SDG 10 (reduce inequality within and among countries), SDG 11 (Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable). In short, the issue of data justice can be addressed via each of the 17 SDGs.

In conclusion, data justice cannot be divorced from larger issues of justice. If we somehow manage to attain data justice and yet SDG 1, Target 1 has not been achieved (By 2030, eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day), then what will be the value of the attained data justice? If data justice is attained and yet SDG 16, Target 16.10 has not been achieved (Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements), who will be the beneficiary of this supposedly attained data justice?

Mildred Achoch is a professional screenwriter with more than ten years of experience, having written episodes for various Kenyan TV shows such as Lies that Bind, Wash and Set, The Team and The Agency. She was part of the adaptation team for the TV drama “Selina” and was part of the writing team for the reality TV show “Ms. President”. She is also the founder of Rock ‘n’ Roll Film Festival, Kenya (ROFFEKE), whose mission is to promote rock music in Kenya via a film by dispelling myths and misconceptions about rock music. She is currently one of the 1000 global jurors appointed by Entreps.

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