Category: Social Justice

inclusionSocial Justice

Investing in empowerment

Dr King spent his last precious hours advocating for the economic rights of African American sanitation workers in Memphis. In his broader vision, this was one arm of a struggle for justice for the poor and powerless that spanned divides of gender and race.

I recently met Ryan Harrison at the Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and
Transparency  and he shared his amazing post on socially responsible or as he puts it solidarity based investing.

The post, at least for me, presents a new way of thinking about “return on investment”. In other words, the “return” is the uplift and empowerment of our communities in ways that seek to build equity for all instead of maximal profits for a few.

In our brief conversation, Ryan schooled me on bail bonds funds as one example. Since many people can’t afford the bond for minor traffic violations and misdemeanors, they end up having to do jail time, miss work, lose jobs, and thus end up in a downward poverty spiral. Since it’s not supposed to be a crime to be Black, Brown and Poor, non-profit funds such as the Bronx Freedom Fund were setup to provide a route of this particular trap. An investment in the bail bond fund is a direct investment in the economic viability of a given community — like the South Bronx.

As Ryan points out, the move away from the traditional 401k/IRA can be gradual — say 10% of your investment funds allocated to solidarity investments. It is the start of the journey that matters.

The options for where to put your solidarity dollars range from grant based investing (like bail bond funds or in local food cooperatives like the one in the featured image by Steven) to direct lending programs (like Canopy Coop in Boston) to more traditional equity investments like the Shared Capital Cooperative .

Gayatri Sethi (my life partner) is working on a education platform called Alt-College that’s based on this solidarity model.

Do you have any suggestions on efforts to invest in? Strategies that you have put into place for socially conscious investing? Please share!

 

 

AtlantaDistributed WorkinclusionSocial JusticeTechnology

Distributed Inclusion at WordCamp Atlanta

 

The Atlanta WordCamp is an annual gathering for people that use and develop WordPress sites. Although it is put on by and for the Atlanta WordPress community, I met people from all over.

I gave a talk there Sunday (4/15/18) on the state of inclusion in distributed companies. Since WordPress is maintained by a distributed company (Automattic, by employer) and an open source community, the subject is of great relevance.

Let me know what you think. There are more unanswered (and unasked) questions than answers.

Mind filling out this survey if you work at a distributed company or work remotely?

The discussion was lively and thought provoking. A few takeaways:

  • It’s important to be explicit about the excluded groups in your company. Only through getting the discussion going can progress be made.
  • Many people are still concerned about revealing their race/ethnicity/physical ability (even on EEOC questions at end of hiring applications).
  • How do we deal with the bias in reaching out to more diverse populations.
  • How do excluded groups even know where to look for positions, when even job search has build in exclusivity.
  • How can independent consultants and free-lancers be advocates in this space?
  • Is the Internet really the equalizer we think it is?
  • How do we start?

I was delighted by the inclusiveness evident in the conference organizers and attendees. One of the many beautiful things about Atlanta.

Please comment and add your questions!

Data ScienceHistoryMigrationPoliticsSocial Justice

Back to Mississippi: Black migration in the 21st century

The recent election of Doug Jones to the U.S. senate in Alabama — thanks largely to African American turnout — got me thinking: What if the Black populations of Southern cities were to experience a dramatic increase? How many other elections would be impacted?

Does that seem far-fetched? Over a tenth of the Black population of the U.S. left the South during the first half of the last century.

They moved from the rural South to the North and West, hoping to escape race-based terrorism and find economic opportunity. The featured image, from the U.S. Library of Congress, is an infographic made in 1950 by the Census department about the migration. My grandparents were part of this movement — they left oppression in small town Georgia and Alabama hoping to find a (slightly) better situation in Atlanta.

As the U.S. census figure infographic below indicates, this migration — one wave in 1910 – 1940 and another wave coming 1940 – 1970 — was epic. Isabel Wilkerson’s book The Warmth of Other Suns is a gripping history of this Great Migration.

020_blackpop_northern_cities_horiz-01

The Great Migration, 1910 – 1970 from: US Census Bureau. (2012). Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/dataviz/visualizations/020/

 

A trend towards a reverse migration back to the South has been noted recently. In a 2011 story, the New York Times reported that in 2009, of the 44,000 people who left New York City, over half moved to the South. A more recent report by the Times, provocatively entitled  Racism Is Everywhere, So Why Not Move South? explores some of the rationale behind this movement. The sentiments echo the recent paper Individual Social Capital and Migration by Julie L. Hotchkiss and Anil Rupasingha.  Improved social capital — the sense that you are a somebody in the place that you live, that your life matters (or could matter someplace) is a powerful catalyst for movement.

The LinkedIn Workforce Report for January confirms that Southern cities are gaining workers at the expense of Northern cities, and this Redfin analysis reports that there has been some North to South migration. According to the LinkedIn Workforce Report, southern cities are still among the top ten in terms of job migration (at least amongst LinkedIn members). Thriving African American communities in cities like Atlanta and Jacksonville, lower costs of living, and the rise of these cities as technology centers are powerful draws.

To look at the potential political impact of a new reverse migration, I ran a few simulations. I assumed a similar reverse migration rate of 2% per year over out ten years. In my simulations, I assume that the main states from which African Americans migrate are New York, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, and California — the main destinations of the Great Migration.  I assumed that the main destinations of the new migrants are among the states that people left during the initial Great Migration: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina. I could have arguably added Tennessee to this mix. I used a Dirichlet distribution to model the allocation of migrants to various destination states.

Let’s first revisit the 2016 election map

newplot (6)

Below are a couple of illustrative outcomes from my simulations. In most of the outcomes, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina are the states in which the political outcome of the migration are felt most.

newplot (8)

Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina are impacted the most

newplot (7)

There’s still hope for Mississippi

Again, I let 10,000 simulations play out, sampling the allocation of migrants to destination states from a Dirichlet distribution.

To make the point a bit further, below is a bar chart showing the number of outcomes for each state over the 10,000 simulations in which Black voters had a decisive impact upon the presidential election (i.e. allocation of electoral college votes) for that state.

election_outcomes_nicer

The point though is not really predicting the dominance of one political party or the other, it is understanding the implication Black voter empowerment — how Black people are empowered to participate in decisions regarding the health, education, policing, and economic viability of their communities. Further, beyond just Black and White, it speaks to me as an opening to think about participatory multi-racial democracy. After all, there was a flash of time between the Civil War and the enactment of Jim Crow racialist laws  in which Citizens of Color of the South were actively involved in governance.

Although these are speculative simulations — for me they contain the seeds of a certain kind of hope. Perhaps the future is the past — but maybe we can mold the future in ways that are universally empowering.

MathematicsPoliticsSocial Justice

Mathematicians, rock the vote!

Can the resistance inspire a new generation of mathematicians?

Samuel Hansen thinks so. In his recent post on The Aperiodical, he describes how the recent avalanche of math-informed court decisions on gerrymandering in Pennsylvania and elsewhere are putting mathematics in the spotlight.

It is really heartening that discrete geometry and other branches of advanced mathematics can be use to preserve democracy — much in the spirit of the 1964 voting rights act (being signed in the featured image).

Tufts University mathematician Moon Duchin has done a lot of work in this area, leading the effort to train mathematicians to be expert witnesses in gerrymandering cases. Duchin’s Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group page has a lot of useful resources.

Consider registering for one of the gerrymandering trainings if you’re a mathematician, statistician, or data scientist based in the Bay Area!

 

HistoryinclusionMathematicsPoliticsSocial Justice

Black history month is Black mathematicians month — in the UK

In the US, the African American scholar (and February 1st Google doodle subjectCarter G Woodson began working in 1926 to establish “Negro History Week“, for in Woodson’s day the contributions of Black people were  “overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them.” Woodson’s Negro History week evolved into today’s US Black History Month thanks to the efforts of student activists of the 1970s.

My partner, Dr Gayatri Sethi, reminds me that the aspiration of marginalized and minoritized peoples to be heard, to enter into equity in whatever place they call home is universal.

With that in mind, it is no surprise then that Black History month has been celebrated in the UK for the last 30 years in October. This October a group of mathematicians at University College London — and  — decided to make October Black Mathematicians month.

During the month they presented interviews with UK mathematicians starting with Dr Nazar Miheisi who does research in Analysis at King’s College. The Aperiodical blog also ran pieces highlighting Black mathematicians, among them Dr Caleb Ashley who gives this Numberphile segment on the fifth postulate.

Building an equitable mathematics community, or better yet an equitable world, should not be confined to a single month — it is an undertaking that will require continuous and deliberate effort. But it is encouraging and inspiring to see many hopeful signs on a global scale.

Do you know of similar efforts in other countries to encourage the participation of marginalized peoples in science and mathematics? If so, please leave a comment or drop an email!

AIAlgorithmsinclusionMachine LearningSocial Justice

AI and the War on Poverty

A.I. and Big Data Could Power a New War on Poverty is the title of on op-ed in today’s New York Times by Elisabeth Mason. I fear that AI and Big Data is more likely to fuel a new War on the Poor unless a radical rethinking occurs. In fact this algorithmic War on the Poor seems to have been going on for quite some time and the Poor are not winning.

Mason posits that AI and Big Data provide three paths forward from the trap of inequality: 1. The ability to match people to available jobs; 2. the ability to deliver customized training that enables people to perform those jobs; and 3. the ability to algorithmically deliver social welfare programs in a more efficient manner.

The first objective seems within the realm of Indeed.com and LinkedIn’s recommendation algorithms and second — personalized training — has a long history in AI systems development. The problem is access: how do you get one of the “good middle-class jobs” in San Francisco when you live in Atlanta and attend a high school that lacks the coursework to prepare you for Stanford? How do you get access to an immersive 3D training environment when your family can’t afford to put down 100 a month for high speed internet and your school lacks the equipment also?

The third part of Mason’s strategy is the most problematic. We’ve seen AI (meaning machine learning and decision making algorithms) used to enforce biased sentencing practices; seen how skewed training data can lead to racial bias in facial recognition; and the use of data-driven methods in predatory lending has also been documented. These examples constitute the tip of a deep problem and still largely un-addressed problem in AI. In short, if the algorithms on which our hopes for transformation are pinned learn from data that reifies the structural racism at the root of social inequity, then we’re simply finding a more optimal route to oppression.

Before we hand over the lives and futures of the most vulnerable members of society to algorithms that we are still trying to fathom, we should strive first for accountability and transparency in algorithms. The efforts underway in New York City to insure algorithmic ethical accountability is one start.

But if machine learning and AI are the new tools of our age, we should empower all people to put the computational tools and conceptual frameworks of data science to work for them. Black Lives Matter activists took the social networking tools to organize protests and share video that has changed and empowered. What could a coming generation do with additional visualization and analytical tools?

It was the prospect of using AI to empower education that first attracted me to the field. I think that the emerging technology has some good to do. But the process must necessarily be participatory. When artists, educators, poets, activists, grocery store owners, gardeners — everyone — can be given access to the tools then I’ll bet on the human capacity to find new paths to expression and opportunity.

AIAlgorithmsHistorically Black CollegesMachine LearningSocial Justice

AI and the Souls of Black Folk

The impact of AI on communities of color — particularly through job displacement and policing — is now undeniable. Given that HBCUs have historically been on the forefront of technology education for the Black community, I am proposing to build a list of current activities (courses, research, seminars, clubs, etc.) at the HBCUs relevant to AI and its wider implications. If you’d like to contribute to the list, I’ll eagerly accept your input! To understand some of my motivations, keep reading.

We’ve now reached the point where the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) upon everyday life is undeniable. Everyone takes Siri for granted, your local Walmart can hook you up with a drone that does object recognition, and the introduction of self-driving cars now seems inevitable.

The title of my post is inspired both by W.E.B. Du Bois’s classic The Souls of Black Folk — a collection of essays on the state of African Americans at the start of the 20th century — and by Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine which chronicles the development of a computer architecture at the end of the 20th century. I think that at the start of the 21st century, a critical look at how African Americans are impacted by immense technological change is needed. The title tries to capture my central question:

What is the impact of AI and related technologies on the lives of Black folk, and how can we organically shape a future for these technologies that enhances opportunity rather than reifies oppression?

To be honest, I am deeply concerned about the potential AI has for disruptive and devastating impact on communities of color. The Obama administration released a sobering assessment of the  economic impact of AI — it forecasts that changes in the transportation sector alone (trucking and delivery) will mean the elimination of occupations which Black and Brown folk have relied upon for entry into the middle class. Those findings are likely to generalize to other occupations. The prevalence of predictive policing and algorithmic sentencing raise serious concerns about equality and self-determination — especially when mass incarceration and other racial disparities in criminal justice are taken into account.

In theory, a modern democracy should allow impacted communities to raise concerns about a technology and then foster the deliberative processes necessary to fairly address those concerns. In theory, the open source movement provides a model through which communities can identify and develop technologies that serve their particular needs.

You might respond that “technology is colorblind, science is colorblind, it shouldn’t matter whether there are any Black folk involved at all in the development of and policy making around AI technology“. I think in this case particularly, it matters a great deal. AI, looking back over its history, is itself an endeavor that grapples with the question of what it means to be human — it is an endeavor that demands broad societal input. 

Aside from President Obama’s initiative, I see very little presence of the disenfranchised in discussions on the future course of AI. For example, OpenAI is a research institute of sorts formed with the express purpose of “discovering and enacting the path to safe artificial general intelligence“. Despite lofty claims OpenAI seems to have the traditional Silicon Valley underrepresentation.

So all that said, what is the simplest concrete contribution I can make?

I have spent most of my career in AI. I grew up in Atlanta, attended Morehouse College and Georgia Tech through the Atlanta University Center’s Dual Degree Program, and went on later to complete a doctorate in computer science at the University of Chicago focusing on robot planning and learning. Along the way I studied and worked with other Black people doing advanced computing, witnessed Black people found successful technology startups and saw Black women and men lead successful academic careers in these fields. On the one hand, the diversity (exclusion?) figures we see from Facebook and Google seem at odds with  that experience. On the other hand, it jibes with the experience of being “the one and only” in many places I’ve worked or studied at. I wanted to begin to quantify and understand the dimensions and particulars of exclusion — things just don’t seem to add up, so perhaps we are looking in the wrong places and asking the wrong questions when we conclude there are no Black folk doing AI?

The Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) provided the fertile intellectual soil in which Du Bois’s ideas sprouted and grew. So I thought my first concrete step would be to take inspiration from Tracy Chou’s Women in Software Engineering and put together a set of Google spreadsheets that document how HBCUs are looking at AI.

I created the spreadsheet AI at HBCUs. Please give it a look. Right now it is an aspirational document in that it tries to gather up any kind of activity at the HBCUs related to AI, Machine Learning, or Data Science. Hopefully it can be the basis of other kinds of summary statistics, update posts,  or active development efforts.

I’ve split the document into a number of sheets:

Sheet Name

Description

HBCUS

Name and address information for US HBCUs based on information obtained from IPEDS

Course

Information on AI related courses taught at the institution. Any department.

Grants

Information on grants received by the HBCU for AI related work

Publications

Publications on AI related topics.

Clubs

Student related clubs. For example a robotics club, drone club, a group formed for Kaggle competitions, etc.

Workshops and Seminars

Has the institution hosted any seminars or workshops? Links to videos would be great.

Outreach

Any Saturday events for grade schoolers? Teach-ins for community organizers?

Graduate Placements

Any numbers on the graduates who’ve gone on to careers, graduate school or internships in AI related fields.

Here’s how I think this could work. If you are a  faculty or a student at a HBCU, you can for the time being send an email to me charles.cearl@gmail.com with information on courses, seminars, research, clubs, outreach programs or other related activity at your institution. I’ll manually post your information to the relevant sheet. If there’s enough interest, I can just set this up to allow direct update (through pull requests or direct editing of the relevant sheet). I’m open to suggestions on formatting, information gathering, and overall focus.

Let’s get the discussion started!