Civil Rights: Turning Data into Action

shutterstock-172200767-185x114A recent article in the New York Times Magazine showed how social media can play an important role in advancing the cause of civil rights. In a larger sense, this is a story about how possibilities expand when data is turned into action.

Since the so-called “Arab Spring” of 2012 where the Mubarak government fell to a people’s revolt fueled by social media, we have seen how connectivity, social sharing and personal fortitude can play key roles in politics and civil life. In the Arab world, much has returned to form. A military regime runs Egypt. ISIS has perverted Twitter and YouTube into venues for terrorist pornography. And despite #jesuischarlie, several French cartoonists lay in their graves, victims of religious intolerance and automatic weapons.

But in the more open climes of Europe and the U.S., social media can bring instant access to sights some of us had heard of but had not seen. Without fear of reprisal, we can watch what the smartphone shows us and what the ubiquitous surveillance cam can reveal. And what we do with this new information will tell the strength of our character.

Perhaps it was the Rodney King video from back in the 1990s that set the template. Few outside the African American community would have believed the onslaught of clubs and boots that felled Mr. King after a car chase in Los Angeles. Then, years later, came Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, where smartphone videos charged a powerful disagreement about what transpired before his death, unarmed, at the hands of a police officer.

With near-total market penetration of video-capable smartphones and surveillance cameras, we’ve now seen multiple examples of official brutality against people (mainly) of color. On Staten Island, where a heedless chokehold killed Eric Garner; in South Carolina, where we saw a man, fleeing, shot in the back by a cop; and in Baltimore, where video posted to social media made it plain Freddie Gray was grossly mistreated and perhaps even murdered by police.

Historically, surveillance has been associated with the State: with command, control and oppression. Big Brother was watching. But now, with videography and instant, worldwide sharing in the hands of the millions, Little Brother is also watching. And the change in perception has been astonishing.

Another recent article in The Times quotes a police official observing how the public “no longer buys our brand”. In other words, access to new data (sights and sounds of police brutality) has made the public less likely to trust that police officers-of whom many are good-always work justly and within the law. It is an important paradigm shift and likely to create a new consensus based in a more expansive definition of civil rights. Many in afflicted communities are likely to welcome the change.

But we must be careful not to waste our chance.

In a connected world, new data is easy to gain. Action is as hard as ever. The city of Baltimore reacted viscerally to the death of Freddie Gray, but was it the video that prompted early indictments? Or was it fear of insurrection? Did civil society react to the data or the riots?

In business, data is lauded as a key component of success. “Big data” and analytics are considered foundational to management of resources. But if business is any guide for the rest, we have reason for concern. Many more “data analytics” project are undertaken than result in meaningful change. Inconvenient facts are spun right out of existence. Checking the “data” box is routine, but translating new information into not just insight but actual new behavior, proves as daunting as it was when we wrote with typewriters and sent memos on paper.

We will have more and more data in the public realm. There will be another shocking beat-down, another shot-while-fleeing, another killing chokehold. They may become frequent enough to seem routine. They are almost routine today.

But we must be vigilant that we don’t confuse exposure with remedy. It is not enough to be aware of the tragedy of a Freddie Gray. It’s much more important to follow the Baltimore example: decisive action in a timely manner. Before the indictments came down in Maryland, we waited needless months before the Ferguson authorities released their findings. In Cleveland, they are still waiting.

If the new videos have shown us anything, it is that officials are as prone to error as the rest. A badge conveys authority but not morality. As a new generation watches itself grow up on YouTube, it will be especially important to hold officials to account: here is the evidence. Let not justice be delayed.


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