This post originally appeared as part of the Data Values Digest, a weekly update with thought-provoking reflections on current events. Subscribe to it here


As the summer ends, we’re looking back at ideas emerging from the Data Values Project. One thing that stood out this month was expressed in a Fireside Chat with Gwen Phillips, Indigenous data advocate and member of the Ktunaxa Nation. When the Canadian government collects data on the Ktunaxa people, Gwen said, they “report on how sick and ugly and dysfunctional Indigenous people are” instead of on the community’s assets, strengths, and abilities. And Gwen says that’s not by accident.

“As long as others are controlling the agenda, data, and investments, we’re always going to be subject to being beggars in our homeland,” she explained.

In other words, who has control of defining concepts results in different measures and outcomes.

In the data for development community, we’ve been emphatic about increasing visibility through data. So many people are missing in data that it’s almost an automatic response to seek to fill these gaps. But data deficits are a narrow slice of a much larger issue, and data itself is more than just a means of preventing people falling through the cracks. This push for greater visibility can be a double-edged sword: Not only are vulnerable people often harmed by their inclusion in data, but many people dispute the way they are defined and represented in existing data.

This is why we keep coming back to the idea of personal and collective agency in the Data Values Project. That data for development is often framed as a top-down endeavor reflects the modern history of counting people. The field of statistics has its origins in the basic functions of the state when measuring people, land, and possessions became a key source of power for governments—especially for European nations seeking to subjugate and control colonized people from afar.

Conversations in the Data Values Project have prompted us to expand the dominant narrative around data inclusivity. In addition to Gwen and Tom’s chat, Josh Powell of Development Gateway challenged us to confront the ways data collected with good intentions can be used by governments to harm people. Caroline Teti of GiveDirectly called on development practitioners to hold ourselves accountable for ensuring people understand when, how, and why we are using their data—even if we weren’t the ones who originally collected it.

The pursuit of equity is not just about counting people, making them more visible through data, and listening to diverse perspectives. It’s also about giving people control to define how they are measured and how their data is used. And so we’re asking if it’s possible—by acknowledging and overturning the top-down origins of counting people—to make data a tool of self-determination and a means of restructuring power imbalances, especially among historically marginalized places and people around the world.

Instead of answering philosophical questions of what personal or collective agency looks like in diverse contexts, members of the Data Values Project are struggling with the more difficult task of defining agency, what it means, where it sits, and why it matters. We’re also seeking to identify approaches that foster and expand agency over data while recognizing that it’s not possible (or even desirable) to include every person in every data decision.