Data For Social Good: People, Processes & Technology - Episode 1
Updated: Apr 20
This podcast features Frank Romo, founder of Detroit based RomoGIS Enterprises: a data, design and research collaborative aimed at promoting the public good through innovative technical solutions. Frank has a long history of being a community advocate, planner and activist for public health and safety, and social justice. As the CEO of RomoGIS, Frank provides technical solutions that empower residents to effectively impact their local communities. In his work with the University of Michigan, Frank engages in community-based research and develops geospatial applications that advance equity and social justice in cities.
This is the first episode of our miniseries on data, maps, and social movements with Frank Romo, hosted by CoLab Radio Producers Emmett McKinney and Allison Lee. This interview was recorded on Oct 16, 2020 and has been lightly edited for clarity and length. A transcription of the conversation is below.
Listen to the Podcast here.
Mapping the Black Lives Matter Movement App. Visit the online map here. [Source: RomoGIS]
Emmett McKinney: Welcome to CoLab Radio. This is a publication of the Community Innovators Lab at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning. This platform is dedicated to centering the lived experiences of researchers, activists, and scholars doing the frontline work of social justice.
Today we are talking about data, and specifically in the role that it plays in helping us make sense of a messy social reality. The fact is that, it's really hard to distill social movements into ones and zeros, to decide how to represent them on computer screens and on hard drives. But today, we have an expert in this particular art in Frank Romo, who is the founder of RomoGIS and who brings a background in activism, urban planning, and now in geospatial computation. So welcome Frank, and do you want to tell us a little bit more about yourself?
Frank Romo: Hello, and thank you very much for having me. First off, I wanted to say thank you both for having me. It's an honor, and I'm very excited to be part of this CoLab Radio episode. My name is Frank Romo. I'm originally from Los Angeles, California. And that is where I first started to get engaged in activism. And for a long time now, probably over 10 years, I've been an activist and community organizer. I've worked in communities in East Los Angeles and South Los Angeles, fighting for better rights for workers, did a lot of work in labor organizing, trying to get people better wages, and we also worked on campaigns to bring healthy food to neighborhoods that were a resource-poor in terms of being in food deserts, and anything that is focused on trying to advance community rights, community health - that's where I really felt called to. I did that for about 10, 12 years, then I ended up getting my graduate degree in urban planning from the University of Michigan. Prior to that, I had to stop at Columbia University with the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. And that's where I first learned GIS. And from there, it kind of took off. I recognized the tool of GIS as a very powerful one for communities to make arguments, to support their claims. And since then, I founded my own company. And now we have been taking on lots of different projects with clients, but also on our own to advocate for social justice and social change using GIS, but technology at large to try to help organizations and people advance and fight for social justice.
Emmett McKinney: Welcome, Frank. So let's talk about a few of the projects that you've worked on in the past. One is the Million Hoodies for Justice Project, which I think, we can clearly link to our present political moment, talking about civil unrest, demand for social justice, and specifically resistance to police violence. How did that work start you down the path that led you to today?
Frank Romo: Well, it first started when I was at Columbia University. I had my first GIS class there. The semester I was there, that was when Hurricane Sandy hit. And when Hurricane Sandy hit, that threw off the whole semester, and we had to change what we were doing. And one of the communities were working in was Red Hook in Brooklyn, and what we had found was that, a lot of our community partners no longer had access to their community garden, or to some of the resources that they had had, because the hurricane wiped out some of those resources. So what we did is, we mobilized some students, and we took some GPS units and just went knocking on doors, asking people what they needed, dropping a point on the map and saying, "Bob, at this address needs insulin," and "somebody at this address needs diapers". And it was very simple, but it was very effective. And that really brought me back to my community organizing days and it just kind of clicked. I was like, “Wow, we used to knock on doors and talk to people and collect this data. Now there's this geospatial component.”
And that made it a lot more powerful, especially when you're talking about folks who are trying to recover from disaster because, unfortunately, a lot of folks have to fight with insurance companies, have to fight with other organizations to get reimbursed for some of those damages. And without that data, those folks who have already been put in a bad situation can get the short end of the stick. And so that's where it all started, first clicked for me, getting to use GIS along with community organizing. So that is where it first started. And then after that, I started to work with Million Hoodies Movement for Justice (currently Brighter Days for Justice), which is an organization that focused on over-policing and racial discrimination. They were founded in response to the death of Trayvon Martin. And again, I was working as a community organizer, as one of their national organizers, and I decided to look at some of the data with regards to policing, and people who have been killed by police, and I just ran with it because I recognized again, that the movement could be really supported by this data, or this technical capacity on the back end.
Emmett McKinney: So you brought up your use of GPS units. And you've talked about your role as a community organizer. Why do you think about this spatially? And what does that add beyond the long-standing practices of thinking about data just in terms of a list of people, who may not be thought about in the context of where they are geographically located.
Frank Romo: That's a great question. I think, over the past 10 years, people have become more acutely aware of how much maps and geospatial data influences our lives. I think with the dawn of everybody having a phone, mobile device in their pocket, smartphone in their pocket, that is essentially a GPS system, a small computer. And prior to that, I think you're right, data was just thought of in spreadsheets or in databases, and there was no real spatial component to it. A spatial component was not stressed very much. But I think what we're seeing now in a lot of research in geography and public health, in environmental health, and all of these different disciplines is, people, researchers, doctors, recognizing that there are spatial determinants to health. And in the same way that there are spatial determinants to health, there's also spatial determinants to upward mobility, spatial determinants to access to food, resources, education, and unfortunately, in other cases, negative things such as over-policing, racial discrimination.
“And in the same way that there are spatial determinants to health, there’s also spatial determinants to upward mobility, spatial determinants to access to food, resources, education, and unfortunately, in other cases, negative things such as over-policing, racial discrimination.”
And we have a lot of that coming out now during this social moment where a lot has been uncovered from the past that maybe urban planners may have known about in the past, such as redlining, such as people being in food deserts and things like that, that's coming more to the forefront of, I would say, the general populace now. And I think some people are like, "Wow, I didn't realize that this happened." But intrinsically, urban planning has played a huge role, and geography has played a huge role, in disadvantaging communities and making sure that communities are either able to prosper from where they live, or getting, like I said, the short end of the stick because they don't have access to the resources that somebody maybe on quote, like, "the other side of the train tracks" might have. And you see a lot of this segregation. A lot of folks know many of our cities in the US are very segregated. But it's not just about racial segregation. It's also about economic segregation. It's also about what access your kids have to resources at school, and things like that. And I think what's happening now, as people are realizing that spatial determinants determine more than just health, but also some of the opportunities that you're afforded in your lifetime.
Emmett McKinney: I'm really happy that you brought up the topic of redlining, because I think that's an interesting example of what was, in the 1930s, a cutting edge technology that was used by planners to try to build a society that they understood to be efficient. But that efficiency was built on top of overt and structural racism. And what that example, I think, shows is that it's not only that racist policies manifest themselves spatially, it's that spatial designations and the use of spatial technologies actually create racist outcomes. And I think it's important to think about the role of maps, specifically interacting with the movements for justice, as well as the context that we're responding to. And on this theme, you have been active in mapping the Black Lives Matter Movement over the past year or so. Do you want to talk a little bit about that project?
Black Lives Matter Dashboard. Access the interactive map here. [Source: RomoGIS]
Frank Romo: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I just wanted to piggyback off that one point. First, is that you're absolutely right. We as mapmakers, as technologists, we not only are at the cutting edge, are providing these new tools and saying, "Look, this is a cool new map. This is a cool new algorithm. We should use it." And that is exactly how, to your point, redlining came about. It was a new tool. Folks thought it was really good way to plan cities for efficiency. But I think both as planners, as mapmakers, as public servants, however you want to frame it, we have also a responsibility to the general public to make sure that the tools that we are using are being used appropriately. Because with every action, there is an outcome that somebody will benefit and somebody will be disadvantaged. And I think we need to recognize the tools that we use to implement policies, or even just do our research because they could set the groundwork for more unjust outcomes.
And so that lead us to the Black Lives Matter Movement Map that our team created. Again, being a longtime activist, and studying and researching information about people who have been killed by the police - and honestly, me, personally, I've had my own interactions with police in my own neighborhoods, where it's something that's really relevant and important in my life. That's why I do that research because I recognize that people can be discriminated against and can be imprisoned or worse, be killed at the hands of law enforcement for a simple traffic stop sometimes. And that's the reality of the situation.
And so it's a project, it's an endeavor, that is really dear to my heart. It's not one that is just flippantly undertaken. It's something that I've been working on for over five years now in a research capacity, but even prior to that as an activist. It's been over 10 years that I've been working in that realm. And so that being said, I'm very familiar with the data. I'm very familiar with these outcomes and how it plays out spatially. And one of the things that I recognized this time around in 2020 is that, when George Floyd was killed, and you had other folks around that same time - Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery - it was all culminating at once, with the populace being very frustrated about these outcomes, being very frustrated that these things were occurring. And for the first time, in my career of researching it, and researching this topic, and being part of that group of activists and organizers, I felt there was something different going on this time. And honestly, I told a few of my colleagues this, I said, "This is the first time that I honestly, as an activist, felt very hopeful about a situation,” because we saw the massive amount of outpouring from people all across the nation.
I'm from Los Angeles, and racial profiling and the problems are well documented in Los Angeles with regards to the racial divide, and racial violence that is taking place. It's a major city. And you often see when these instances happen of people being killed by police, that major cities - LA, Chicago, New York - people are coming out to protest. And I would say that's likely expected, because in those urban areas, there are folks who encounter that more, on a more regular basis. But what was really different this time, was that you saw it in small towns in South Dakota, and in North Dakota, and in places in Alabama. And there were small towns of people coming out and showing support. And as an activist or an organizer, that's what you want to see. You want to see your allies step up. Because we cannot make change by just the people who are being oppressed being the ones speaking out. People need allies. And we need to work together to try to solve some of these problems. And so when we saw that, when I saw that happening across the nation, I just felt something different this time around. I was like, again, like I said, I felt inspired and hopeful. I was like, "This, this feels different this time."
And so then myself and a few of my analysts, we got on the project. And we just started to research. We pulled data from Twitter. We pulled data from different news sources. And started to verify them one by one to make sure that they were valid sources. We linked to the data sources, or the local newspaper or local journal outlet, so that we could provide our end users some more specific content with regards to those protests. And then we started to map it. And we also added a feature where folks could add data to the map themselves. So we had this crowdsourcing piece in it as well. We took that point of view because we felt, with crowdsourcing, we could limit some of our work - the crowdsourcing could help some of our work. But more importantly, I think the crowdsourcing was a goal to try to make people feel involved. And to make people feel like part of the movement. If you went to a protest, or if you knew about one, you can add one to the map. And our goal was for folks to be able to look at the map and say, "Hey, look, there's my city. We're represented on the map." And there's a feeling of power there.
“As an activist or an organizer, that’s what you want to see. You want to see your allies step up.”
Maps are powerful things. And I think that's one of the reasons why I'm really drawn to maps, because as an organizer, as an activist, coming from those perspectives, you're always seeking, how do we overcome this structure where we feel like we have no power? And I think maps and mapping technology allows people to have more power, because when people see things on a map, they believe it, and it makes it more real, as you said. And I think that was something that we were trying to do, is engage folks through the crowdsourcing, but also sharing that, "Hey, you're not alone in this movement. You might feel like you've been fighting for 10 years and fighting the same battle." And we see the same things happening, of folks getting acquitted, and people dying, and people getting arrested without due process. We see these things happen every day. And I'm sure so many activists and organizers were frustrated by that. But when you start to look across the nation and see that happening everywhere, where folks are standing up and speaking out, there's a sense of hope there, and it is a sense of camaraderie, like, "Hey, we can do this. We can change the system so that people can be safer. And we can have a more just society."
Emmett McKinney: I think the point that you brought up about people seeing their city is so important. The role of a social movement is to move people to connect with citizens who may not have thought too deeply about an issue before, but who are called into action now. And the fact is, we all exist in space. We understand ourselves with respect to our own built environment. And the role of a map, or a role of a map, is to connect this broader social movement to the place where we exist, and therefore to us as individuals. And that's what I think is so powerful about your work. I'm curious as to the aesthetic trade offs and aesthetic decisions that you made. What are the principles that you think about when you're deciding what to represent and how?
Frank Romo: That's a great point. And I think you need to know your audience first off. And that's the teacher coming out in me. As a map maker, you need to know your audience. Maps are very ubiquitous now. And everybody has - they may not think it, but people use GoogleMaps all the time. And that might be something that's not necessarily related to this conversation, but 20 years ago, folks would not be as aware of how to read a map. I think today, folks are more aware of how to read maps - what the highway signs look like, what those signifiers are on the map. So I think there is a higher level of people who are able to read maps. There's more readability to them now, or there's more of a consciousness about how to read a map.
To learn more about the project, explore the StoryMap here.
But at the same time, one of the things that we were really concerned about was loading data, because it was so many points. As of right now, we have over 5000 protests on a map that span all around the world. And that's a lot of data to load. And so if you have low bandwidth, it might not work. If you're working off of a cell phone that doesn't have a good service, it might not work. And again, almost inherently with technology, you have this digital divide, where, who has access is really important. Who has access to these technologies, who can access them? And of course, the folks who aren't able to access them are those who are, almost all the time, potentially disenfranchised in other ways as well. If they don't have the ability to have broadband internet, then they might have difficulty getting access to other resources.
So one of the first things we thought about was, "How do we make this load quickly, because we want people to be able to use it, and not have it bogged down their system." The other thing that we wanted to think about is, again, end user experience. And if people are not familiar with maps in terms of a digital platform, how do we encourage them to say, "Hey, this point is clickable. We, as folks who work with maps as planners or GIS professionals, we know that that point is most likely clickable, or on hover we can do something with it. But a novice user might not know. They might just see it on the map and, "Okay, cool." A lot of times I think about someone like my grandmother, or my mother, and when I send them a map, what are they going to do? Are they going to click on something? Are they going to understand what to do with the map?
I think it's really important to know where all these other users are coming from, because it's easy to plan for users who are familiar with the software. But we wanted to try to reach the masses. And in order to do that, you have to plan appropriately and make sure that you are taking into account folks who may have never pulled up a map on the desktop before they look like ours. And so we made design decisions to try to expand the contrast. We have a black base map, and we have the points orange, and turquoise, and white, so that they pop off the screen. That's another design element. We want to make sure that the data pops off the screen. So making a very muted base map and having the points show up brings a lot of attention to the data. And then also with text on the sidebar, just saying, "Hey, you can click on a point." Letting folks know that you can click on a point to find more information.
And also the last part is making sure that we use technology that was going to allow the data to load quickly and on different devices. And then, I live here in the city of Detroit and one of the stats that comes across our table a lot is that, over 40% or 50% of Detroiters access the internet from a mobile device. I'm sure that this isn't the only city where that occurs. And you find out more and more now. So planning for mobile as well. Making sure that your users can access it on their devices that, they may have broadband on or they may have the ability to get to, because their cell service is better than what they might have at home.
Emmett McKinney: That's so fascinating. This is a set of points that I think often gets glossed over when we talk about data and data visualization. I think it can generally be assumed that if data gets put onto a computer screen, then it is accessible. But there are all these layers to it, that maybe the data is itself visible, but the information and understanding of it may not be quite so easily obtained, unless you have some really thoughtful design. So I appreciate that reflection. I'm also wondering what you think the limitations of maps are? What are the drawbacks of using this medium to capture a social movement?
Frank Romo: I think there are a lot of drawbacks. The first thing, just to reiterate one more time is that, not everybody has access to internet. And that's one of the biggest things. If you don't have access to internet - we see it right now, with so many people working from home, children taking school from home. So many articles have come out since the pandemic has started about how, again, those low income communities, those communities that were already on the fringes don't have access to broadband Internet, and it is directly affecting their schooling, which then directly affects their potential learning outcomes, and their trajectory for life. And again, that could be geographically based, but also socio-economically based.
So I think, as a mapmaker, as much as I love making online maps, as much as I really love the visual nature of it, like, "Oh, that looks so cool," I love creating beautiful maps, there definitely is some drawbacks, because you know, it isn't 100% accessible. So what we often try to do is try to make different formats of our maps. So we make a map online using one software, and then we might take that same data and make it in another software, because that other software might have benefits that the first software didn't have. Because it might load faster, or might allow for more digital accessibility because the clarity of the points or the text is bigger. Things like that. But even there, print maps, I think, are still a lot of what people like, especially folks who are not familiar with the digital technology. Print maps are what either they grew up on, or what they're used to in their workflow. And so something like this, it was a little bit harder to create. But we are trying to do some maybe like posters or some PDFs right now, that will, along with some text articulating, "Hey, this was the project. Here are a few screenshots or PDFs of the map. So that that way, we can circulate it in a different way. Because there's nothing worse than when you're trying to test your map, and you open it in an incognito window, or you open it from a slow internet connection, and you're like, "Well, this isn't gonna work, because it doesn't load properly."
Next City chronicled public demonstrations in the aftermath of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. The 3 June 2020 article also featured the work by RomoGIS.
And then that's what I'm always thinking of. How do we get to those fringe users who might not have the same access that we have? We have the privilege of having high speed internet. Now that is very much a privilege. And we need to recognize that not all of our end users have that. Yet, the information we're trying to get across to them is still very important to the movement, probably something that's very important to their lives, and something that they would care about. So how do we get it to them in a different fashion?
Allison Lee: You're talking a lot about accessibility of maps and accessibility of information. And before - and you've touched on this a few times - the spatial determinants and the geography, and how that's been used in the past. And it sounds a lot like there's a very strong effort to democratize data, in this sense. And one of the posts that was written about the Black Lives Matter Mapping the Movement Project that you were discussing, you mentioned that the hope is to provide activists with additional resources in their fight for justice. And I'm curious to know that, there's so much effort here to make the maps accessible, not just for policymakers, not just for researchers, not just for the people making all the big moves, and not necessarily just for activists, but for the general populace. And as a mapmaker, do you see this as an increasing trend among mapmakers to try to reach a really broader population of people?
Frank Romo: I think it depends on the data. And I think that's where the power comes in. It depends on what data. Is this data - and this is not something that I would say but you know - just from city governments, from private institutions, from philanthropic organizations? Everybody uses maps. And it really does depend on the data. Sometimes, folks have data and they purposefully don't release some of that, or purposefully make it inaccessible. And that's on one end of the spectrum. On the other end of the spectrum, you have folks who say, "Let's leave it open data and let everybody access everything. And let's put out APIs and let developers pull our data. And let's hand out the data to all these nonprofits that we know." And then there's a lot of people in the middle still, I think, who are trying to figure out where they stand. Where they say, "Okay, well, we want to release this data, but we're not sure that it's going to be used in the most appropriate way," or, "We would like to release this data, but you need to pay us." And so again, that's where the power dynamics come in.
And I think data is one of the - it's already happening - but is the next frontier here, with regards to who has access to it often determines who has power. And we can talk about that in any capacity. Who has access to education determines who has power. Who has access to jobs determines who has power. And now we're moving into this age of data, whoever has access to the data will have more power.
And so I like the way you frame it, about this more democratization of it. I think that's right, I think that's what we should be aiming for. However, easier said than done, because there are massive companies who like to hoard their data. And there are other companies who like to provide that data, or who do a lot of data research and will gather, gather, gather the data, and then it just sits on their server and nobody has access to it. And you see that a lot of the time.
“So what we often try to do is try to make different formats of our maps. ...How do we get to those fringe users who might not have the same access that we have?”
And so honestly, one of the things that we try to do at RomoGIS is work with nonprofit organizations to try to help them let their data work for them more. One of the organizations we're working with right now is the National Association of Public Defenders. And as you might know, public defenders are so overworked. Their caseload is very heavy. There's a lot of turnover in that field. And so the client that we're working with, our role is to help them build their database. And they might have a database that was in files at one point, or in an Excel sheet at one point, but we're trying to bring them to the next stage where they can have data readily accessible to them. They can click a point on the map, say, "Hey John Doe, his cell phone number changed. Let me change it in Alabama, in this county in Alabama, let me change his number." And then we make that available to the public so the public can see what his number is, or where he can be found. Because as a perfect example of, when the data is not in place, people suffer. And I think that's a perfect example of how, if data and infrastructure isn't in place, some of these organizations can't effectively - not to say that they're not doing their job effectively, but they could be doing it better if that infrastructure was in place. So one of the things we try to do is try to work with those organizations to set up those systems, so they can do their job better. So they can impact more people. So that people aren't taking plea deals that they don't have to take, and we have more people in prison.
Emmett McKinney: One idea that I think is really interesting from what you just said is, the difference between holding data in, for example, an Excel sheet or a static file on your computer, and housing it in a database. There's a whole ecosystem of different tools and ways of handling information. And I think it's often not clear who holds what data, and what is and is not accessible. And we see a lot of open data platforms that are not in fact, as open as they seem. Just because you can see a dot in a web browser on a map, does not mean you, per se, have access to that data, or to enough of it to actually make use of it. Not to mention the technical knowledge or, frankly, the bandwidth to obtain that technical knowledge, to make use of it. So I'm curious as your reflections on the Open Data Movement, and what it takes to actually make that "open".
Frank Romo: It's a really great question. That's a really important question. So there's a few different spaces here. And the trend is that more cities are going to open data. And you see, again, now, as opposed to 20 years ago - I think New York is a prime example. New York's Open Data Platform is remarkable. The amount of data that they have - they are one of the leaders there in that field. They have data on their portal about everything. And they try to make it accessible as an Excel download, as a GIS file, as different even computational files, like bringing APIs and things into that. So I think city governments are doing a good job of overall making their data more accessible.
And when I teach, that is what I show folks, because I can teach you how to push the buttons on a GIS machine and make a map, but again, the power comes from the data. If you don't know where that data is, or you don't know how to find that data, then you knowing how to push those buttons doesn't mean anything. So where we usually start when I'm working with students or organizations is, "Okay, here are some open data portals. Go find some data that interests you, and download it and try to play around with it." So I think overall, cities and local governments are doing a good job of making that push and making it more accessible. But I also know that behind the scenes, there are things like you pointed out. "Yes, let's put it on a map. Let's reveal two of the ten fields that we have." And is that open? If we only allow you to see two out of the ten fields or categories of data that we have, how open is that? Is it good enough that somebody can download it? Or should that person be demanding that they have access to the entire data set? How does that person - the general public person - how does he or she even know that there are more data fields available?
So there's this curtain, or this wall, that anybody who owns data or is operating with data has, and they often put up this wall or curtain. It's kind of like the Wizard of Oz, right? There's a bunch of things going on on the front that people see, but there's a lot going on behind the scenes that folks don't see. And that makes a big difference to what's actually being put out in the world.
Emmett McKinney: I love that analogy to the Wizard of Oz, because data often gets presented as magic. That information that seems to come down from on high, that gets displayed in this dazzling way, that people respond really powerfully to. But then if you actually pull back the curtain, you realize that there's a human back there pulling some levers, deciding what gets shown and how. And this circles back to a point you brought up earlier, from a practical viewpoint, how do you get the data to load quickly? Well, one of the ways you do that is by choosing a subset of it to show, or to aggregate it in some way. And, for example, to show the data at the census block level, or county level, or state level, instead of every single parcel. Which just comes from the fact that most people don't have a supercomputer on hand to visualize all the data at once.
And so there's a degree of storytelling that comes as a map maker that reflects the constraints that, you can't just dump all the data that you have because your computer will crash and even if you could deliver it, it wouldn't, per se, be useful to your intended audience. And I'm wondering how you think about those trade offs. When deciding what to show and what to leave out, what values guide that navigation?
Frank Romo: That's another really great question. So I liked what you said about data and mapmaking being very magical. I see it all the time. And I spoke with one of my other GIS friends and I said, "Sometimes it feels like we do magic. We just push a few buttons and all of a sudden, people are like, 'Oh, my gosh, how did this happen? This is so amazing.'" And it's great. I mean, it's great that people are so excited about it. But one of the things that I really try to do in my position, both, like I said, with students and with organizations, is to demystify that process. Because it goes back to my role as an organizer. You don't fish for somebody; you teach them how to fish. And if you're able to do that, you empower people, you make them feel more confident in themselves, you make them feel more able to make a difference. And who knows, you could walk away and five, seven years later, they could be running a data shop for an organization that didn't even know they needed a data shop. I've seen that too, where I've trained folks and they go on to be a central role in an organization who a few years prior had no data infrastructure at all. And now they have some data infrastructure.
So to answer that question, I feel like I would answer very much as an organizer, where you try to get the most value by investing in people. I always bring it down to three: People, Processes, and Technology. And in that order, as well. The people come first. You have to inspire people and show people that they have the ability to do it and they can do it. And then you teach them the process. You can teach them how to click these buttons. You explain to them how, to demystify the process. And the technology - how is it distributed? How is disseminated? How is visualized? But I really do think that it comes back to empowering folks to push themselves and their organizations one step forward.
As an organizer, one of the things we always come up to is, you have a lot of losses. You advocate, you advocate, you advocate, and then somebody doesn't sign the bill. You advocate, you advocate, you advocate, and then they don't get in office. And you have a lot of losses. But that's not the mentality we ever have. The mentality is, "Hey, we move it one step forward. As long as we're moving one step forward, that's a success." And so demystifying the process is really part of that, so that folks can do it themselves and start to make a difference in their own communities. That is my goal, to try to influence others to make that impact locally, so that they can do that. So as far as values go, it really is about training folks to just move the ball forward, and learn a little bit more, and be more confident in their skills to do so.
Allison Lee: Well, this is all really inspiring to me. I am getting the impression that our future of fighting movements is really going to be very much based on data. We are going to be fighting movements with data going forward in a lot of ways. And yet at the same time, we are also very much in the beginning of this stage. There's a lot that's just emerging. And those best practices perhaps have not been defined yet. This is something that we're newly navigating, and I think you and your work and your projects are very much at the forefront of this kind of movement - the data movement for movements. And I think that there's going to be a lot to come from this. So this is very interesting and inspiring to me.
Frank Romo: Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate that. And one last thing I will say is that we also have to recognize that the technology isn't going to solve everything. You have these two sides, where you have the technologists who say, "Hey, here's the solution to everything," and then you have the organizers or activists who say, "Why are we going to do that? We need to be out on the streets, we need to be knocking on doors, we need to be mobilizing people." And we have to learn in these movements, how to marry the two. We have to learn how to help the activist learn how to speak the technical language. More importantly, we have to help the technologists learn how the organizers and the activists think and meet them where they are, and not say, "Hey, here's a tool that your computer isn't capable of running, but you should use it because it's a really cool tool." So it's really about finding the middle ground and bringing those two sides together.
Emmett McKinney: Totally. There's this mystique that surrounds data, and one way I like to think about it is that data, or digital languages, are a lot like human languages. They evolve over time, they develop new phrases, new words, new sentence structures to reflect new and emerging ideas. And I think as a society, as we increasingly follow the lead of data, we should also be conscious that it encodes knowledge. It's a structure for us that encodes and legitimizes some forms of knowledge over others. So I think developing this consciousness about data as an entity that influences society in and of itself, and not just a sort of ledger of what is otherwise happening in society, is a really important perspective and I think you've made that clear.
So thank you so much to you both for starting us off. This is the first in a series of conversations on CoLab Radio about data, maps, and social movements, and we hope that you will join us for the next two. Frank Romo will be back to talk a little bit more about data curation, as well as the process of analyzing, and making policy from data. So thank you very much and we’ll see you next time.
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About the Interviewers:
Emmett McKinney is a Producer for CoLab Radio, where he works to amplify community narratives. As a Master in City Planning student (2020), Emmett works to ground policies aimed “sustainability” and “resilience” in communities’ lived experiences. His current research focuses on transportation and water infrastructure, and how equity and justice are integrated into data-driven planning. Outside of CoLab, Emmett can be found running, drinking coffee, and dancing to reggaeton.
Allison Lee is a Producer for CoLab Radio and a Masters student in the MIT Dept of Urban Studies and Planning. She is interested in balancing conservation and development, and places community and culture at the heart of her work.