Burak Arikan, artist and founder of network mapping tool Graph Commons, explores the stakes involved in gathering and sharing data on social issues that affect us all

Civic Data Solidarity

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Civic Data Solidarity

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“Treasure Island,” a short film

I first saw “Treasure Island” at a screening of works by Stanford’s MFA Documentary Film students in 2014. Co-directed by Melissa Langer and Elizabeth Lo, it follows the perspective of children in four families living on the island, following them as they wander throughout the island and play. They dig in the dirt, peer through chain link fences enclosing remediation sites and explore old buildings adorned with warning signs.

Here’s the clearest picture of Silicon Valley’s diversity yet: It’s bad. But some companies are doing less bad

Ten large technology companies in Silicon Valley did not employ a single black woman in 2016. Three had no black employees at all. Six did not have a single female executive.

In stark contrast, women outnumbered men in the executive ranks of two Silicon Valley companies, and at another firm, nearly a third of executives were women of color.

A first-of-its kind analysis of 177 of the largest San Francisco Bay Area tech firms by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found that while racial and gender disparities are grave, many companies haven’t been held back by conventional excuses.

Hidden figures: How Silicon Valley keeps diversity data secret

When the popular messaging platform Slack won a fastest-rising startup award last year, the company sent four black female engineers to accept it.

Onstage at the TechCrunch awards show, one of the women praised Slack’s diversity, citing a statistic from the company’s 2016 diversity report: 9 percent of Slack’s engineering team were black, Latina or Native American women.

“THIS Is What Diversity In Tech Should Look Like,” said one HuffPost headline.

At the 2016 TechCrunch awards in San Francisco, four black female engineers at Slack – from left to right, Megan Anctil, Erica Joy Baker, Kiné Camara (at microphone) and Duretti Hirpa – accept the award for fastest-rising startup. In her speech, Camara cited a number from a Slack employee diversity survey that the company later acknowledged was flawed. Credit: TechCrunch

It turns out that number came from an anonymous employee survey that Slack later acknowledged was flawed. While the company had said 6.9 percent of its technical team was black, for example, this year’sdiversity report admitted the number should have been 4.3 percent. No mention was made of women of color this year.

How many women of color do work at Slack? The answer is on a one-page form Slack and all companies with 100 or more employees send to the federal government each year. The forms – calledEEO-1 reports – show hard numbers of employees broken down by race, gender and job categories such as professionals, managers and executives. But Slack won’t make it public.

The Navy’s Legacy on Treasure Island

USS Pandemonium at Treasure Island; photo courtesy US Navy All Hands magazine, July 1957

In the summer of 1946 the United States exploded two atomic bombs in the Bikini Atoll of the Marshall Islands—a small ring of islands 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii—as part of a research project called Operation Crossroads. The event marked the beginning of the United States’ postwar regime of nuclear weapons tests, which ended only in 1992 and involved more than 1,000 nuclear weapons. Most weapons tests took place at the Nevada Test Site, northeast of Las Vegas. However, during the 1940s and 1950s, the US military exploded 67 nuclear weapons on the Bikini and Enewetak atolls of the Marshall Islands, which it had renamed its Pacific Proving Grounds: an outdoor laboratory where the military “tested” theoretical advances in its weapons technology. To produce the Pacific Proving Grounds as an empty landscape available for weapons testing, the United States first removed indigenous Bikinians, promising to return the island after the tests were done. Bikini remains uninhabited today.

Diversity in Silicon Valley in the Context of Civic Data Solidarity

Caption: As Silicon Valley struggles with inclusion and discrimination, most of the area’s tech companies won’t share raw numbers on workforce demographics with the public. Credit: Photo illustration by Gabriel Hongsdusit/Reveal

Large Silicon Valley technology companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple and Oracle fuel the global economy and have a strong hold over our everyday lives. The products they build are used by everyone, and yet most technology companies themselves do poorly on hiring and retaining minority workers. A lot has been written about diversity and representation in technology giants, but surprisingly, there’s very little data around the issue.

A Collaboration between Civic Data Solidarity and AEMP

Treasure Island under construction before the completion of the Bay Bridge, 1936. (Clyde H. Sunderland Commercial and Aerial Photographs, from the San Francisco Public Library Historic Photograph Collection.)

As unfolding revelations of fraud and the recent discovery of a highly radioactive object at the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard garner increasing news coverage and public attention, the situation on Treasure Island remains, for the most part, out of the spotlight—despite concerns about toxicity and resident safety that closely mirror those surfacing at the shipyard. Many island residents live directly adjacent to nuclear waste disposal areas, but they fear the potential repercussions of speaking out about their living conditions in the midst of the housing crisis.

9.26.17 Civic Data Solidarity Workshop Report

Photo: Beth LaBerge

On September 26, 2017, Public Knowledge convened a Creative Research Workshop about the politics of “data” in the Bay Area. A group of artists, designers, librarians, engineers, teachers, researchers, writers, and nonprofit workers met in SFMOMA’s Koret Education Center to reflect on disparate efforts to measure injustice and to make that information public. Everyone in the room engaged digital network mapping technologies in some way, although with different modes of inquiry, convictions, and goals.

Planning for Civic Data Solidarity

A daylong Graph Commons Workshop on December 5, 2015, at the Brown Institute as part of The Transparency Series in the Columbia Journalism School in New York.

In the summer of 2017 Burak Arikan facilitated a Graph Commons Workshopat the Designing Hope festival in Frankfurt. An introduction to complex network mapping techniques and technologies, the workshop invited participants to bring their own data and learn how to create interactive maps that would help them “untangle complex relations that impact them and their communities.” At a conceptual level, the project asked people to reflect on “the network as a creative and critical medium.” Ultimately, its goal was to teach people how to use mapping and visualization tools.