Working With Data & Working With Communities

Throughout my time in the Design Lab I have noticed a shift in my interests. While they are mostly still the same (citizen science, making data and data analysis more accessible, using data analysis skills to understand a community’s issues) they have shifted from being things that I was merely academically interested in, to becoming things that I gave up calling my “passions” and started looking at them from a more pragmatic manner. I started learning about how sometimes data and my own skills were not what a community needed. I started recognising the force that each community has in solving their own problems and realising that if my data analysis skills were ever needed, they should never become the main narrative in a community’s search for solutions.

All of these ideas became a lot more coherent after attending the symposium “The Promise and Peril of Evidence-Based Activism“, where a group of scholars discussed their ways of combining their research with activism.

One of the most on-point talks was given by Dr. Kristie Dotson, an Associate Professor in MSU’s Philosophy Department. She emphasised throughout the talk that a researcher should never put their interests before those of the community they are producing their knowledge for. They “have to obey their needs, their restrictions”. Subconsciously, I had adopted the framework that academia produces knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but Professor Dotson emphasised the fact that research does not happen in a vacuum, that every question we choose to answer ends up serving a community. Our responsibility is to decide which community we are going to serve.

While most of the talk was focused on research done in the social sciences, I realised that a similar framework could also be adopted by the scientific community. In theoretical research, one could argue that knowledge is created for the sake of knowledge (even though one could think of ways to engage communities of science enthusiasts with their work). When it comes to research in the applied sciences, though, the type of questions that we choose to answer are political, whether it’s because our research is government-funded, or because we know that certain companies will use our work to develop their products. So, it is time for us to start looking more deeply into who is served by our scientific research, and how underserved communities get negatively or positively impacted by our work.