The University of Chicago Library’s Center for Digital Scholarship, Chicago, IL

Engaging with Criminal Justice Related Data
Partner organizations: DataMade
The University of Chicago Library's Center for Digital Scholarship partnered with data intermediary DataMade to address challenges around the accessibility of inherently problematic data - specifically criminal justice data. The project team brought together data users from across fields to hear speakers and participate in discussion. The events centered the communities with the most risk for harm from the data. The project team had to pivot due to COVID restrictions but was able to hold successful virtual events and learn more about the challenges people face using the data and find that there is an interest in a continued community of practice related to criminal justice data in the region.
In late fall 2019, the University of Chicago Center for Digital Scholarship under director Stacie Williams partnered with Forest Gregg, founder of the Chicago-based intermediary DataMade and journalist Amanda Miley to propose a project. The project's premise was that DataMade had an incredibly rich, yet complex data collection created and aggregated by a variety of researchers, journalists, and other individuals who are employed in the criminal justice ecosystem (prosecutors, legal scholars, data scientists, etc.), and that DataMade was concerned about the challenges of making the data accessible due to its inherently problematic composition and collection methodology. Criminal justice data--the statistics comprising interactions between police and citizens--may be gathered through violence or threat of violence, and disproportionately documents the lives of Black and Brown people in a way that creates negative images and narratives of Black and Indigenous communities of color. That harm is further compounded when policymakers use those biased data points to create policy that further oppresses already marginalized individuals and communities.
Our project began with a desire to gather a group of interconnected civic data mediators throughout the city of Chicago and brainstorm together how to approach a level of data literacy needed to accurately and equitably assess these particular data points, and to encourage conversations that might point to future needs or collaboration.
The project was just beginning in March 2020, mere days before the city of Chicago was placed under a shelter-in-place order as a means of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Our original proposal was intended to be an in-person, multi-day, multi-hour forum. We pivoted our in-person forum to a virtual event, but instead of expanding to invite more people, we kept the guest list small to create a more intimate event where we could create space to discuss sensitive issues surrounding criminal justice data. The University of Chicago hosted the event live with two keynote speakers and breakout rooms for active learning sessions.
Throughout the timeframe of the project, DataMade and Ms. Miley worked concurrently on an open access database aggregating separate crime-based statistics and were also working with local organizers to fight voter suppression prior to the U.S. 2020 presidential elections. The pandemic changed other plans and partners; initially the Library had intended to work closely with University of Chicago Law faculty, particularly because one of the invitees helped create the Invisible Institute open access database documenting Chicago police misconduct, but shifting priorities and responsibilities during the pandemic meant that some people could not participate in the way they originally intended.
We designed two, 90-minute sessions, each with a 20-minute keynote and 30-minute activity with time for breaks and questions.
(Flier created in October 2020 as a Save the Date reminder and to announce the final keynote speakers.)
We invited 41 people total and allowed participants to choose which date they preferred. Each session had between 9-12 people attending, not including project planners. Attendees represented a variety of activist organizations, government accountability organizations, journalists, data scientists and developers, legal faculty and law clinic staff, and librarians, including those whose subject focus included social science data, political science, economics, and law. We selected keynote speakers from decarceration and abolitionist organizations #NoCopAcademy and the Westside Justice Center, separately, in order to center the communities most at risk of data harm or data violence. We also wanted to center women’s voices as being an “invisible” class of people experiencing disproportionate harms because of their interactions with the criminal justice system. The active learning exercise was designed based on the Civic Switchboard cohort session facilitated by Fabriders, focused on adult-designed learning, and we used the City of Chicago data portal to identify a sample crime dataset for conversation and analysis.
The forum was initially focused on three tracks related to criminal justice data: Research, Outcomes and Dissemination. Once we moved to two forums, our keynote speakers chose a track to highlight and that was the theme of the active learning sessions. Youth organizer Destiny Harris spoke to Research, as her organization #NoCopAcademy conducted its own citizen data collection to find out how much police interaction residents wanted in the neighborhood. Former incarcerated organizer Monica Cosby discussed her lived experience (Outcomes) as a data point in the system, and the abolitionist framework she uses to advocate on behalf of incarcerated mothers as a staff member at the Westside Justice Center.

What’s been collected is incomplete and lacking standardization in terms of how it is collected, from whom, how it is shared, and what the outcomes are of that dissemination.

The biggest outcome of our discussions was the fact that most criminal justice data is also siloed from other data. What’s been collected is incomplete and lacking standardization in terms of how it is collected, from whom, how it is shared, and what the outcomes are of that dissemination.
While we discussed plans for a potential second event, CDS Director Stacie Williams took a new job at the end of 2020--pausing plans to continue the work as it was originally conceptualized at the University of Chicago.
Next steps discussed included applying for a larger planning grant that could create local data literacy programming around criminal justice data and share the data literacy programming with other librarians and educators within the civic data system. We did not distribute a formal post-session evaluation, but we did gauge attendees as to whether they were interested in keeping in touch with each other via email to create an active cohort. The majority of our attendees said they were interested in sharing contact information. Many of the attendees knew each other but had not interacted across professional groups in this speculative way before.
While the unexpected events of 2020 played a dramatic role in certain changes to our forums, we were pleased with the virtual event, as it forced us to think about what we could do to have an ultimately impactful though stripped down event.