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Democratizing Data
Making information a tool of the people for the people

Overcoming injustices, obstacles and frustrations, African Americans have a long and enduring tradition of using data for social change. Learn how to make the power of data work for your local community.

Have you read these stories yet?

Ida B. Wells: Journalist, civil rights leader, mother of four (and savvy data-user)

Thurgood Marshall: Scientific evidence supported his case against segregation

New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center: Using numbers and strong partnerships to take on predatory lending

Feb. 21, 2003 | Stories about leaders from history such as Ida B. Wells and Thurgood Marshall demonstrate how data has been a key weapon in the fight for social justice in this country.

Ms. Ida B. Wells was relentless in her campaign to outlaw lynching. In fact, it almost got her killed. Her newspaper offices were bombed and daily threats on her life forced her to flee Memphis and open up shop in Chicago. Mr. Thurgood Marshall was a stickler for facts. He had to be. He was trying to convince the Supreme Court to outlaw segregation.

And social justice struggles are not confined to past history. Mr. Jeffrey May shows how his team at the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center uses data every day to combat predatory lending in predominately African American neighborhoods.

Data isn't necessarily neutral

As we’ve seen in these stories, data has been used by wise people for great purposes. But, data is not a pure truth – it is created by people through measuring, testing, categorizing and researching – and there has been a shameful history of people collecting data toward bad ends, beginning with the framing of the U.S. Constitution where African Americans were counted as only 3/5 of a person, and Native Americans were not counted at all (1).

Mr. Herman Shaw, Tuskegee Study participant, after the Presidential apology at the White House.

[Courtesy of Historical Collections and Services, The Claude Moore Health
Sciences Library, University of Virginia

In the mid-20th century at Tuskegee University, the Federal government caused the deaths of dozens of African American men in the name of research. Hundreds of African American men suffering from syphilis went untreated for decades so that researchers could examine the natural course of the disease. In fact, the United States Public Health Service “went to extreme lengths to ensure that [the study participants] would not receive therapy from any other sources” (2, 3).

A 1962 voting rights demonstration in McComb, Mississippi.

[Photo courtesy of the Erle Johnston Papers, McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi.]

During that same era, many states denied prospective Black voters their rights by using “literacy” tests as a legal barrier. For example, in Mississippi, African American citizens could vote only if they successfully answered questions such as, “How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?” (4).

How did Ms. Wells, Mr. Thurgood and Mr. May overcome this legacy of data being used against African Americans and turn it around for the greater good?

They identified data being used by powerful decision-makers – then they used that data to make their own cases. Ms. Wells, for example, used lynching statistics from a White-owned newspaper that published editorials supporting lynching. Attorney Marshall drew from published scientific literature showing the devastating effects of segregation. And Mr. May uses Census and other federal data to make the case against housing discrimination in New Orleans.

Demystifying data

Access to data has traditionally been held by people with power. Even today, when tons of data is technically “available” to the public, most of us are overwhelmed and frustrated when we try to use data, whether in grantwriting, planning or advocacy.

It’s completely reasonable to feel overwhelmed and frustrated! Here’s why:

Although public agencies are legally required to publish data, they aren’t legally required to publish it in an easy-to-use form. Because information = power, the power structure remains intact when the information remains inaccessible to most of us.

That’s where you come into the picture.

Once you cut through all of the jargon, technology and other tools of intellectual intimidation, using data is still a challenge, but it's definitely do-able.

Here are the basic steps to using data:

1 Define your question. (Ms. Wells asked whether most lynchings were really a response to accusation of rape. Mr. Marshall asked if segregation was psychologically damaging to children. Mr. May asked if there is evidence of predatory lending happening in our neighborhoods. What's your question?)
2 Find the most widely accepted data source. (An admittedly imperfect source like the U.S. Census is nevertheless widely accepted. Learn the limitations of the source and state them to make your message stronger.)
3 Analyze it. (Try comparing the percentage for your neighborhood to the percentage for a larger area like the parish, state, or nation.)
4 Interpret it. (What does it mean to your community? What’s the bigger story? What caused those numbers to be that way?)
5 Present it. (Weave the information you get from data sources into your grant proposal, your neighborhood advocacy message, or your presentation to City Hall. Keep it simple.)

There is also art in the science of using data. Obviously, you can’t just go around changing numbers to fit your argument, but there are some things you can do…

Is the data too negative? Flip it upside down to focus on the positive, or look for improvement over time.

Think the data is flat-out wrong? Look for explanations in the methodology used to gather that data. (Ask: Do the geographic boundaries include areas you don’t consider part of the neighborhood? Is there reason to believe that many residents weren’t counted in the Census?).

The national movement toward democratizing data

In cities across the country, you'll find local organizations whose purpose is to make data locally relevant and easy to use.

One leader in this movement is the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) – a collaborative effort by the Urban Institute (in Washington, DC) and local partners around the country to further the development and use of neighborhood information systems in policymaking and community building.

Can’t find the data you need? Not confident about how to analyze or present the numbers you found? Ask someone who might know. A librarian. A data-savvy friend. Or your local neighborhood data resource (in New Orleans, that’s the Community Data Center).

Who owns the data?

The fact is that data is used to make decisions in this country. It’s used to disseminate money, divvy up political districts, and make plans that affect communities. The beautiful thing, though, is that data is ours. It’s about us, and it belongs to us. Let's use it!

Links to learn more about using data

Are Census numbers accurate? Some limitations of the Census

Race & Ethnicity in the Census The difference between race and ethnicity in the Census

Numbers talk... and at the neighborhood level they may talk even louder! Tips for analyzing data

What data do funders want to see in Problem Statements? Tips for presenting data in a proposal


(1) U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3.

(2) Report of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study Legacy Committee
Final Report –May 20, 1996

(3) The Tuskegee Syphilis Study: A Hard Lesson Learned, Timeline

(4) The University of Southern Mississippi's collection of oral histories on voting rights activism leading up to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

This article is a collaboration between the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center and the Jim Dunn Center for Anti-Racist Community Organizing at The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond in New Orleans. Content and editorial contributions from: David Billings, Charlotte Cunliffe, Margery Freeman, Allison Plyer, Denice Warren Ross, and Angela Winfrey-Bowman.

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Last modified: February 21, 2003