About feminist data

 

What is the project about?

Feminist researchers, technologists and activists engage with data on a daily basis, and in many different ways. They produce, collect and work with qualitative as well as quantitative research data. They build technologies and write code. They critique data practices that exclude and discriminate, and they critically intervene in data-based processes of knowledge production.

Drawing on these and other ways of working with data, what does feminist data mean to feminist researchers, activists and technologists? Can we consolidate or break down to the lowest common denominator what a feminist way of producing, collecting and working with data might be?

Feminisms are almost as multiple as the kinds of data they produce, collect and work with. And feminist data may therefore mean fairly different things to different feminists. Rather than decide which feminism is the right one, or which feminist approach to data the truest, this project wants to include a wide spectrum of feminist work on/with data to explore feminist data.

What’s the common denominator of feminists engaging with data?
What does a feminist politics of data look like?
What are feminist data practices?
What do feminist data do?
What are feminist data?

More, different, and related questions may of course come up along the way!

 

Why do we need feminist data?

For decades, lived experience has been the core subject of feminist theory, research and activism. And increasingly, lived experience generates data too. In a world where both, datafication and feminism are here to stay, feminist data and feminist ways of approaching data are worth further exploring and striving for.

When it comes to qualitative data, to queer and/or feminist theory, to critical research methods, or to local and/or global feminist activism, there are decades worth of feminist insights to draw on. Intersectionality, situated knowledges or reflexivity are just a few of the tried and tested tools at our disposal.

An ever increasing number of feminists are also critically engaging quantitative data and so-called big data along with the humans, technologies and algorithms that process them. But how to best apply a feminist toolkit here often remains much murkier in practice. Sometimes quantitative research and big data practices even seem at odds with a feminist approach to research.

That’s a productive tension that shouldn’t be ignored or even necessarily resolved. Ignoring the difficult questions that come up through data is dangerous considering how omnipresent data have become. And trying to prescribe a simple solution to a complex set of questions nearly always misses the point. But in staying with that tension, in exploring related questions and practices across research and technology lies potential for learning. And staying with that tension requires engaging with feminist data in more depth.

 

What’s an exploratory methodology?

In other words, how does the feminist data project go about this research? Essentially by asking many feminist researchers, technologists and activists what feminist data means to them.

In this context, exploratory research means:

  • that the research question is open ended and adaptive to change
  • that the goal is food for thought rather than proving a point
  • that the project remains flexible and iterative

Exploratory research helps clarify an issue or a set of questions. In doing so, it lays the groundwork for potential future projects. The goal is to generate ideas, insights, further questions, more research and more activism on feminist data rather than testing a hypothesis or contributing empirical knowledge first and foremost.

The particular methods used to explore the set of questions about feminist data are likely to evolve throughout the project. Initially, the feminist data project will explore what feminist work on/with data exists in the wild, map other projects contributing to similar sets of questions, and interview feminists engaging with data in different ways. This will provide the basis for an online survey involving the broader feminist research and tech communities in the project.

 

Who’s behind this project?

Dr. Nicole Shephard is an independent researcher and writer based in Berlin. Her work takes an intersectional feminist perspective on tech-related topics like the politics of (big)data and algorithms, the internet, surveillance, or online privacy.

The question of feminist data has come up time and again in various crevices of her work: as a tech worker way back when, in thinking about feminist research methods in academia, while having feminist thoughts when “big data” rose to hype, in feminist internet activism, and in recent years also as part of her post-academic work on gender and technology. Rather than remaining a lingering question, ever on the sidelines of other projects, feminist data now receives its own due space and examination.