Data generation as citizen science // A favela agenda to opening science

Data generation as citizen science // A favela agenda to opening science

Gilberto Vieira [1]

photo credit: Eloi Leones

In recent years I have come across an instigating debate that sometimes, depending on where it takes place, asks us: who does science belong? This seems to be a fundamental question for us to understand the paths that democracies will take in the coming decades, especially as the countries of the global south claim a more significant role in the geopolitical future of the world. It is that science and politics must be thought of together. Suppose we believe in the centrality of the peripheries for constructing societies with full rights. In that case, it is also necessary to question where the boundaries are (territorial, sensorial, socioeconomic, of thought) [2] in constructing future science.

“The level of scientific development of a field, country or region is not measured simply by publications indexed in conventional scientific databases and the impact of their citations. It is equally important to evaluate the results of local and regional research work to understand the configurations of science and their importance in each context.” This is what researchers Dirce Santini and Sônia Caregnato say [3]. They claim that the peripheries (understood in their broader dimension) have systems for generating and using knowledge and evaluation, which may require different indicators. The simple copying of epistemologies from the “main science” to the peripheral spaces tends to generate preliminary analyses and harmful effects on the very idea of ​​science.

It is not new that data_labe has guided the concept of citizen generation of data in some debates dedicated to the intersection between technology and social transformation. These data types are disputed in the context of large cities, especially ours, in Latin America and Africa. That is why we have carried out projects that involve popular participation in the production of data, such as Cocôzap, which maps complaints of sanitary problems in the Conjunto de Favelas da Maré here in Rio de Janeiro. In a simplified way, the objective of the prototypes we have been experimenting with is to steer a public debate on the production and dissemination of data about the realities of our favelas.

Anyone who understands political games work knows that decisions are almost always supported by research, analytical and conjunctural reports, and numbers that justify interventions here or there. Of course, you don’t need to be an expert also to know that countless political decisions are taken on a pure whim or demagogic impositions. But I am not interested in the debate about the political model that has challenged our democracies. What has called our attention is this critical and little discussed stage: the research methodologies, mathematical and statistical models formulations allowing one or another result, the narrative in reports telling stories between the lines, and the research teams and the design of their instruments. And we ask ourselves one more time: to whom does science belong.

As part of the Global Innovation Gathering – the GIG – I was at the 2022 edition of the re:publica festival in Berlin, Germany. I used the opportunity to discuss how we can contribute to opening data sciences and social sciences, especially in processes involving public data and leading to political decisions about our daily lives. Global slums and peripheries, which are the centre of data_labe’s work, have been excluded from the scientific processes of the modern era. It wasn’t always like that.

Empires, communities, and ethnic groups spread across Amerindian and African territories developed methods of analysis and interpretation of the stars, nature, human behaviour and technological production that sustained their livelihoods on the planet for many centuries. The arrival of ​​Western science, which was initially linked to firearms and diseases that decimated and enslaved these populations, undermined our possibility of continuing to construct interpretations about the world as historically done. Of course, we resist, but we cannot help but ask: what is the science we know today? What is she made of? Who participates in your decision-making processes?

The answers become more evident as more people, projects, and programs flourish, especially from social movements located in famous territories. We have undertaken and participated in several recent initiatives that seek to value local knowledge and mobilise the very logic of research usually carried out in research centres and universities, producing a displacement of historically authorised instances to know. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, many collectives organised themselves to provide material support to families in situations of vulnerability but also to collect data that show inequalities. (I spoke about it especially here).

In recent months, here at data_labe, we have been working on organising and analysing information generated during a campaign to collect citizen data on police approaches in Brazil. We listened to more than a thousand people part of our network and found “two protocols” for personal searches: one for black people and one for white people. The chances of a black person being approached by the police in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo cities are four times higher than for a white person.

We call this model of openness and dynamics of ways of thinking about research and data production citizen social science. It is an experiment seeking to revive a debate that has seemed lost (or weakened) in universities and research centres in recent decades. The arrival of black women and men in the laboratories, the growth of debates on decoloniality of thought and action, and access to bureaucratic models for maintaining social organisations are factors that call my attention to a fight that promises not to retreat in the face of the advancement of neo-fascism. We have always been at the forefront of struggles for civil, human, and environmental rights. Thus, we will now partake in the battle for a more open, diverse, participatory and citizen social science.

[1] Gilberto is director and co-founder of data_labe, a research lab on technologies, education and journalism, at the Favelas da Maré Complex, Rio de Janeiro.

[2] Manifesto Jararaca. -> jararacalab.org.br

[3] SANTIN, Dirce Maria; CAREGNATO, Sônia Elisa. The binomial center-periphery and the evaluation of science based on indicators. Investigación bibliotecológica; México, 2019. Check it here.