Data and Representation: From Drunken Rants to Expert Research

By: Megan Whalen

I have to admit that I am more obsessed with data than most people. Ask me to talk about my work and I will give you an impassioned sermon about how data is a key part of representation in the twenty-first century. Buy me a couple of cocktails and I’ll flourish the conversation with rants on structural inequality and the intentional silencing of huge swathes of our population. A few more cocktails will take you down a curse-word laden rabbit hole of righteous indignation and conspiracy theorizing. I suggest you stop at two cocktails.

Buy me a couple of cocktails and I’ll flourish the conversation with rants on structural inequality and the intentional silencing of huge swathes of our population.

Fortunately, other researchers are also concerned about the ways that some groups of people are being denied representation in important public data and you don’t even have to buy them a cocktail to hear their perspectives. A recent report by the Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI) provides a much more reasoned and thought out example of how a lack of representation in public data collection matters – in this case, it is hurting efforts to address the high rates of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) in urban areas. In 2017, UIHI began a study to assess the number of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in urban areas across the US. While media coverage tends to focus on crimes that occur on tribal lands, the 2010 Census estimates that 71% of American actually Indians/Alaska Natives live in urban areas.

The UIHI wanted this study to help shine a light on violence against American Indian/Alaska Native women and girls living in urban areas. What they discovered was that they were unable to really examine these rates or locations of violence due to a lack of quality data. The UIHI report provides a great breakdown of why the needed data is missing as well as discussing the impacts of this lack of data.

I strongly urge you to check out the report yourself, but here’s a few highlights for the tl;dr types:

Findings on data quality and access

  • 5,712 cases of MMIWG were reported in 2016 but only 116 were logged in the Department of Justice database.
  • Although UIHI used Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) guidelines for requesting data from 72 law enforcement agencies, two-thirds of those either provided no data or provided data of such low quality it was unusable.
  • The FOIA process is expensive and very time consuming, so the grassroots organizers and nonprofit organizations that most need access to this data often cannot afford it.
  • There is a lack of standardization in collecting race information across law enforcement agencies; some agencies surveyed couldn’t even provide data broken down by race categories, others only counted people as Native American if they were a member of a federally recognized tribe and counted all others as white, and several departments submitted data including both Native American and Indian-American individuals (i.e., people from or descended from people from India).
  • Using other research methods, UIHI found 153 cases of MMIWG that were not included in the data submitted by city and state law enforcement agencies.

Suggestions for improving data quality and access

  • Better methods for community access to public data.
  • Updated record-keeping and data management guidelines across all law enforcement agencies.
  • Accounting for the violence that Native American communities experience in policies addressing MMIWG.
  • Acknowledging Indigenous Data Sovereignty; The US Indigenous Data Sovereignty Network defines this as “the right of a nation to govern collection, ownership, and application of its own data, including any data collected on its tribal citizens.”
  • Immediate and adequate funding for research to support effective policies for protecting Native American/Alaska Native women and girls in urban areas.

What data are collected and who has control over the data can have far-reaching impacts.

Just as data can be used to tell stories, it can also be used to keep stories from being told.  Whenever we find a lack of quality, culturally relevant data collection about communities of color, immigrant communities, LGBTQ communities, folks living with disabilities, or people with other marginalized identities, we need to address it. What data are collected and who has control over the data can have far-reaching impacts. My team and I are dedicated to contributing to efforts to increase equitable data collection and reporting. Buy us a round and we’ll tell you all about it.

Photo Credit: Clare Mackintosh

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