In this episode we talk with Caitlin Bentley, a Lecturer in AI Education at King’s College London. Caitlin’s research has predominantly engaged with questions around how technology systems can be designed and implemented in ways that promote social inclusion, empowerment and democratic participation. Tune in to hear about a theme of fierce women in history, the ups and downs of experimenting with educational pedagogies, intersectionality and its applications in technology research, and critical Black feminists across history.
Please note: Caitlin briefly mentions encountering evidence of violence against women as part of her experiences in Morocco. This portion of the episode may not be appropriate for young listeners.
Listen and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, iHeartRadio, PocketCasts, Spotify and more. Five star ratings and positive reviews on Apple Podcasts help us get the word out, so please, if you enjoy this episode, please share with others and consider leaving us a rating!
Hosts: Zena Assaad and Liz Williams
Guest: Caitlin Bentley
Producers: Zena Assaad and Liz Williams
Sound editor: Cyril Buchart
Liz: Hi everyone, I’m Liz Williams.
Zena: And I’m Zena Assaad.
And this is the algorithmic futures podcast.
Liz: Join us, as we talk to technology creators, regulators and dreamers from around the world to learn how complex technologies may shape our environment and societies in the years to come.
Zena: In today’s episode we talk with Caitlin Bentley. Caitlin is a Lecturer in AI Education at King’s College London. Caitlin’s research has predominantly engaged with questions around how technology systems can be designed and implemented in ways that promote social inclusion, empowerment and democratic participation. Her first edited book explored critical perspectives on open development, and was published in 2020 by MIT Press.
Liz: In this episode we hear about a theme of fierce women in history, we explore the ups and downs of experimenting with educational pedagogies, we dive into intersectionality and its applications in technology research, and we learn a little about critical Black feminists across history.
Liz: Thank you so much for joining us today, Caitlin. We’re really glad we could have you on this podcast with us today and we’re so excited to get to spend some more time with you. It’s been quite a while since we were all teaching together. This is kind of a new way we can get a chance to have a chat.
Caitlin: Yeah. It just seems like life keeps moving at the speed of light. You’ve had a baby. Zena’s moved to Queensland. I’ve moved to Sheffield and I’m soon moving again. Yeah, so life keeps happening, doesn’t it?
Liz: It definitely does. With that, I’m wondering if we can get started. I was curious if you would be interested in sharing a story about your background. With this, we were hoping to get some idea of what your early influences are and how they influence the path you’re on today.
Caitlin: Sure. I guess I would say the first set of influences are definitely my parents and growing up sort of half the time on the University of Waterloo campus and that’s in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. My parents were separated so I lived half the week in Kitchener with my dad and half the week in Waterloo with my mom.
I guess definitely fierce women are a theme of influences in my life. My mom is obviously the fiercest woman I know. She recently told me a story about the first job that she got at the University of Waterloo. And she was actually pregnant with me and she had my sister at home with my dad and they were still together at the time. But she was replacing somebody who was on pregnancy leave and she was a bit scared that they wouldn’t allow her to do the job.
And so she asked if it was okay that she was pregnant and they said, “Oh yeah, yeah. Of course.” There was my mom taking over for somebody on pregnancy leave whilst massively pregnant. And she was also completing her PhD at the time, working and taking care of us half the time. She ended up getting her PhD when I was 12, and so, in many ways, she had to fight for all of her jobs and for tenure.
She also tells a story about dressing up as a man just to go into a bar and get a drink with her colleagues. There’s Canada back in the ’70s. So she had to fight for all of those things. And I think her determination and resilience is definitely a big influence on me. I guess the University of Waterloo as a whole was also a big influence. It’s sort of one of the preeminent computer science universities in the world and definitely in Canada. And it’s also well known to its contributions to developing the internet, like Usenet.
I think it also developed the first cooperative education program and there was a company by the name of Research in Motion who developed the Blackberry Phone there, which was like really the first revolutionary communication device for businesses. That was like all taking place while I was growing up.
I think it influenced me a lot because of just this context where I knew that things were happening and my dad was always very interested in computers and he was learning on his own. And I was always bringing in motherboards to show and tell or making my own websites.
Liz: That’s such an interesting history and I love the theme of fierce strong women that is so ingrained in it.
Zena: Yeah, I can imagine how challenging it was for your mum trying to forge a path in academia in the 70s. Your story of her dressing like a man to have drinks at a bar with her colleagues paints such a vivid picture of the challenges she must have faced.
Caitlin, I’m wondering if you could share a bit about how this place and this history led you to where you are now?
Caitlin: I think the university and that whole context was a big influence, but the actual campus, I think it was just very brown. It seemed boring to me as a kid. I think the one thing that I knew for sure was that I didn’t really want to stay there.
After that, talking about the path that I’m on now, probably it’s hard for me to kind of distil what has led me here. It’s like my past is like a ball of yarn to me. Like it just looks like a big jumble, but I’d say the next set of influences relates to how, I guess, I became aware of my own ignorance. So how I became aware of my own ignorance, I guess, maybe injustice or perhaps how I developed my own ways of looking at socio-technical systems, both through the work experience that I got abroad and then further study. And so, in around, I guess the time that I graduated from university, the tech bubble had just burst and it was actually a really difficult time to get a job in tech.
And so I didn’t. I ended up finding an opportunity to go to Morocco with Oxfam-Québec through Canada’s Net Core Program. This was an initiative that was funded by Industry Canada and it was sort of designed to enable young Canadians to get work experience at civil society organizations in developing countries. I wanted to go to Morocco mainly to improve my French. I didn’t really know anything about international development. I didn’t know a lot about gender or women’s rights or anything like that, really, other than the little bits of training that they give you before sending you abroad.
So I often say that that experience is what burst my bubble in a lot of ways, because I witnessed and personally, I experienced it myself a lot – violence committed against women and I observed just so many injustices, like battered, raped women, visibly upset and worried for themselves and their children. I was essentially sent there to build a website.
I guess I was just confronted by the gravity of the work that they do there and I felt helpless myself, sort of devastated and harassed a lot. I couldn’t either get justice there. Like when we’d go to the police, nothing would really happen. So it was really a big wake up call for me and I didn’t really know what to do with that experience as a 22-year-old. I think by the end of it, building a website, like who really cares about a website, but what was really influential to me, I think, was working with the receptionist there and seeing her become my partner in doing these technology trainings and her being able to take over the website and seeing how she learned to develop these technological skills and how that changed her confidence and her reputation in the organization.
There was something in that type of work that I really found rewarding and I just couldn’t come to grips with like how difficult it was or really understand like how I could find that type of work so rewarding when it was so difficult. It took me a while to really digest that experience.
It wasn’t until a number of years later when I was studying for my Masters in educational technology in Montreal, I was working at the same time for a different Canadian volunteer cooperation agency, which is now called Crossroads International.
My boss there, a man named Richard Veenstra–and I was also working as a volunteer with another organization called CUSO with a man named Hugo Montesinos—both of those men, I think, really exemplified or helped me to understand what it was about I guess what I would now call like a Canadian approach to international cooperation, is like what I really had valued in that work.
Really that approach is about enabling freedom and empowerment in other people in organizations, by giving them voice through sharing and collaborating in a mutual exchange rather than just like a one-way exchange. From my perspective, approaching problems or situations from a position that I would say expresses humility or humbleness or being a facilitator rather than a solver of problems–that was sort of what really helped me to develop a sort of reflexivity about the power and privilege that I had in those different places that I worked.
I guess I notice that I’ve always been drawn to more constructive approaches that favour participation and voice because of Richard and Hugo, but I was also learning education theory and practice at the time. And my professors at Concordia really enabled us to experiment with so many different constructivist educational approaches, like Gretchen Lowerison and Phil Abrami, Johanna Strobel, Vivek Venkatesh—so many amazing professors there.
It was such a phenomenally constructivist program. What I mean by that is just that the students are allowed to read something and experiment with it in class and use the classroom as a test bed on each other and explore things that we wanted to and be pushed to debate things in class and to develop our own sense of self as teachers, as educators, as professionals.
Those professors really opened my eyes to worlds that I hadn’t seen before from an intellectual perspective and helped me to articulate again the things that I was drawn to about voice and participation and freedom and empowerment.
Anyhow, at the same time, when you start to introduce technology into the mix, I think things always get a bit more complicated. That’s sort of when the last set of influences, I think, that I’ll mention started to come into my view or to my perspective. And so again, I had a job with Richard Vinstra while I was studying. I was working on a project for Crossroads and this was with 17 different civil society organizations in five West African countries.
It was before Skype existed. Skype existed, but it didn’t work in Africa. It didn’t work on low bandwidth — it does a lot better now, but still back then, it was just… Did not work. And so the whole project was really about finding some types of communications tools that would actually work to allow our partners to talk to each other and collaborate.
Because collaborating with Canadians is sort of one thing, but being able to collaborate with organizations doing similar things in a similar context, that’s sort of what we would call South-South collaboration. And so the culture there, like certainly back then, people much preferred to talk to each other, to speak to each other and then we also wanted to find a way for them to share files and project plans and things like that. So we wanted something like Skype and something like a Facebook group before Facebook existed as well.
And so we were building these tools to try and enable more South-to-South collaboration. And in many respects that project, I guess, just was not very successful. It was a big failure in a lot of ways. It wasn’t until one of my courses on educational cybernetics that I used that specific project to try and sort of understand why we didn’t achieve the intended outcomes that we had hoped to achieve.
Liz: So just for our listeners, cybernetics, to put it really simply, is really about taking a systems view to projects like this. So you wouldn’t just look at the people, you wouldn’t just look at the technology, you’d really take into account the context, the environmental factors, the interconnections between all of these things that might influence what is likely to happen. And this is really about figuring out how to steer a system – whatever you define that system to be – in the way that you want it to go.
So Caitlin, I’m curious: was this where you were first introduced to cybernetics?
Caitlin: I really had no clue what cybernetics was at the time. The only reason I took that course was because absolutely everybody recommended Gary Boyd, his course. It was just like you couldn’t graduate without taking his course. Like he was just such a charismatic character. He was sort of this gentle giant. He had a great big beard and he always had this like tiny, tiny little tie and he had great big suspenders holding up his pants and thick, thick glasses.
And he was so, so quiet and you’d sort of see him wandering the halls and you might just like be a little frightened by this sight, but like once you got to know him, it was just such a special thing. He was so creative; he would always make up his own words, and he was the most eternal optimist I have ever met. And he was such a big influence on me. He thought a lot and he thought quite deeply. And he would always talk about in every aspect of his work about how education and educational systems could create eudaimonia and positive social transformation. And it was like, he knew everything about cybernetics.
He developed this incredible unique cybernetic approach to modelling a program or an educational project. And he would obviously teach that to us. But the thing about him was that he was able to kind of explain these complicated concepts and research and theory, but there was so much creativity that he would foster in us. He would just let us, try and give us these tools, but then let us create an analysis that made sense in diagrams or pictures or words that would make sense to the context as well.
He always gave us the freedom to be creative in our analysis of systems. He gave us tools, sort of, to do that. In reality, I guess those tools allowed me to – have shaped the way that I think about socio-technical systems holistically.
But also, all of his tools are essentially putting you as like a systems designer or analysis into the picture, which automatically brings out all of those power relationships in context, and helps you to see why these projects may tend to fail and all the different types of dynamics that were affecting our project success. That’s really when a big light went on for me.
Liz: Gary Boyd’s approach to education sounds a lot like the approach we tried to take with the Masters of Applied Cybernetics that the then ANU 3A Institute, now the ANU School of Cybernetics runs. I guess I better explain to our listeners what that context is…. Or at least what that looked like when the three of us were actively involved in creating and running the program. There were three components – the first was kind of a “theory” course, where the students learned all about the many ways to look at and understand cyber-physical systems.
There was also a “practice” course, where students dug into real-world case studies and applied that theory that they learned, in that first semester, with the help of partner organisations. And there was the hands-on lab course, which ran over the entire year. And that’s where the three of us really got to collaborate. That was very much in line with this idea of creating a safe space for people to really engage creatively with cyber-physical systems – so, by building them, taking them apart, figuring out how to design them in different ways and what that actually meant for the technologies they were designing. I speak most strongly about that course because I took the lead in designing, and it very much aligns with my vision for education as this safe space where students can really contribute actively to knowledge in a highly supportive environment. And I’ve got to say, I learned a lot from you, Caitlin, when working on that course together – and actually on the whole Masters program – especially about how to create opportunities for students to discover some of these dynamic processes that can influence whether and how these technologies succeed.
Zena, you joined us for the second year we taught the lab course – what was that like for you?
Zena: You know when I first started teaching I wasn’t sure if I was going to like it, but I very quickly loved it. And for me, the thing I loved the most was seeing my students embrace ideas and concepts and then use those ideas and concepts to create amazing things. Seeing how each student responded to and utilised different practices and theories was the most rewarding part for me.
Liz: So Caitlin, going back to Gary as an influence, what were some of the things that stood out for you? What was his classroom demeanor like, for example?
Caitlin: I think ideas are one thing, but Gary was such a big influence because he cared about us and he was so supportive and encouraging. Literally, he would tell you, “You’ll do great things.” Or, “You’ll change the world and you’ll be … ” Totally exaggerating, but I think as young people, you need to hear that sort of thing to believe in yourself.
I totally dedicated my thesis to him because he just would lift all of his students up so much. And a lot of his methods entered my PhD research and I hope to keep sharing them. But I think that my PhD is the last elephant in the room, which has influenced me because my approach today is like really a lot due to that experience as well. And my Ph.D supervisor is a man named Tim Unwin. And like Gary, he really encouraged me to look at things holistically. And he was also very optimistic, but much more driven by a passion for justice and fairness.
In Canada, they don’t really teach critical theory. Like our education department was… Even though we would teach constructivist educational theory, the research they did tended to be quite positivist methodologically. And my supervisor, Tim, was never ever prescriptive about what I should read or think, but he was always asking questions, finding holes in like anything that I’d write or anything that I’d propose to do.
It’s sort of only years later when you start to realize how that experience shapes your thinking. And it’s quite a long time that you spend with your supervisor as well. It can be years and years and years. I don’t think I’ve even been married that long. But Tim has essentially dedicated significant portions of his career to building collaborative networks and initiatives that promote the use of technology to support the lives of the poorest and most marginalized in society. And so to him, theory always comes after motivation, but he was always extremely rigorous – the most rigorous that I have ever known in that his motivation is informed by philosophy and knowledge and history and context and of course, the people that are involved. Like for example, he would always call me a practitioner. It took me a long time to realize that was a criticism to him. Anyway, but I didn’t think that was a critique. But then I realized that he meant it that way, anyhow.
At the time, this was like 2010. We both had really high hopes for the positive transformational potential of technology in society. I think we both somewhat at the same time, went through a very dark depression when we realized that maybe we were being too optimistic. I guess the last person that I haven’t mentioned that has really influenced the path that I’m on is my husband, because I don’t think I would’ve pulled through those days like when I was really depressed about the impact and outcome of my research that I… I don’t think I would’ve finished my PhD at all without his idealism and enthusiasm to draw on. He’s just so passionate about philosophy and I’d say the big air questions around life and meaning. And when I was so focused on the specific impact of my work or lack thereof, it really helped me to take a step back and see the bigger picture. I don’t think that we acknowledge the influence of our family and friends enough and I’m like, I’m glad to say that you guys have become my good friends and have also become really positive influences on my life as well.
Liz: You’ve been one on mine too—I can speak for myself.
Zena: The same goes for me, it’s been so great being a part of your story.
Liz: Caitlin, can you explain what critical theory is for our listeners?
Caitlin: Yeah. So critical theory to me is about taking a values orientation in your research and practice, like taking an ethical responsibility to address unjust or oppressive structures with society. To me, that also means standing up for what I or what my collaborators believe in.
I will take a reflexive approach to acknowledge my own privilege and advantage in the work that I do. And using all of that like knowledge, research, the whole idea is to disrupt the status quo. To essentially support positive social transformation. So to me, critical theory is not about critiquing the way things are only. It’s about making improvements, it’s about trying to make improvements and just experimenting and doing something about it.
Of course, supporting positive social transformation, it’s an ideal. It’s really hard to make happen. It rarely does. But I think the whole point is that you have to consider questions around power and control in your analysis and your action. The reason for that is really because if you can disrupt the status quo, but maybe you don’t make things better, more permanently. So the idea really is to aim to make conditions fairer or more equitable, especially for the poorest or most marginalized of society.
Liz: So the positivist approach you mentioned – it’s a world view in which there is such a thing as an objective truth, right? The scientific method is a great example of this. The observer shouldn’t matter if they’re doing things well and doing their best to be objective. But critical theory really requires reflexivity about who the observer is and what their values are – and what influence that might have on a piece of research, for example.
So, Caitlin, going back to what you just shared, there’s so much richness in that, so I wanted to ask a follow-up: I’m just kind of curious because I’ve seen you in the classroom, but obviously our listeners haven’t. And so: how do your experiences in your education or your life come through in your own teaching?
Caitlin: There’s an ongoing debate in education about constructivism because students can feel lost, they might not have adequate, like a base level of knowledge to feel like they can be constructive or create knowledge themselves. And there’s also like, in the context of an educational program, students want to get grades and that impacts on their careers. And so having these very fluid or uncertain boundaries or standards about how they might get good grades or contribute what some kind of work that the professor will actually say is of a good quality standard, can be quite stressful and unconducive to learning in a lot of ways.
But it’s different. At the 3A Institute, we had a really unique opportunity because we had a very small cohort and we had people with incredible life experience and professional skills and capacities that they could bring into the classroom.
I think a few years ago, we were at a stage where we actually didn’t know a lot about the ways that technological designers or developers could work in a particular context to develop ethical AI enabled systems, essentially.
My approach to education at that time was – in collaboration with the rest of our colleagues as well, of course – was to try and encourage students to explore either existing methods and practices that they were interested in, that they were drawn to, that might draw on their past knowledge and experience and that they could develop in some way that would respond to particular challenges that our industry partners and academic partners were discussing with them in the classroom.
I would say, in sum, it’s about creating moments where people can collaborate, bring in their own interests and capacities or pre-existing knowledge beneficially. One, that’s not straightforward. It has to be hard to challenge students and to push them out of their comfort zones a little bit. It has to be meaningful in some way, so that the things that they’re creating in the classroom aren’t for nothing and that contribute some kind of knowledge in some way so that they can get that experience in a supportive environment of what it means to build knowledge, to build either new tools or methods or practices or what have you in a way that they feel supported and guided.
And to sort of ease the burden of this very constructive approach. Like I try and build in as much scaffolding or facilitation that helps people that might need a little bit more guidance to develop that confidence, to become their own creators if that makes sense.
Zena: So Caitlin, you were talking about your time in Morocco and how it was difficult to witness certain things that you weren’t aware of before you went there. And you mentioned voice a lot and I felt like there was a strong theme of voice in a lot of your previous answers.
So can you explain to me what has been your experience in trying to reflect different voices in your work and in your outputs? And that could be like the voices of the women that you met in Morocco or the voices of your students when you’re creating educational content or the voices of some of your influences in the research that you do.
Caitlin: The main way that I think about voice is there’s sort of two levels there. The first way is about making a commitment to those people who are at risk of marginalization or discrimination whose voices have not been heard, who are missing or who have been excluded in some way and really prioritizing how you design or build systems or a research project to take into account their perspectives and needs.
Ultimately, the ideal way to do that is really to give them a role as partners or as participants in technology systems design or development or even your research about it. That’s sort of the first way. The second way, though, I think coming from me as an academic in sort of a powerful academic institution with this education in human geography, which looks at things systematically and extensively, and I need to be able to use that as well, to both understand the structural conditions and difficulties and barriers that the communities I’m trying to support face and to advocate, to protect and empower, within our systems, their perspectives as well.
That can be anything from creating policy recommendations to working with government, to trying to influence technological companies, I guess somewhat as a representative for those communities.
Zena: You and your colleagues, Arul Chib from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and Matthew Smith at the International Development Research Center in Ottawa recently put out a book with MIT Press called Critical Perspectives on Open Development: Empirical Interrogation of Theory Construction.
When we said we might ask you about this book, because it’s very exciting, you said, “I think open development was done about five years ago now. It’s definitely lost its momentum.” Can you explain to us what happened to open development and why do you think it’s lost its momentum?
Caitlin: I think in my last answer, I mentioned that 2010-2015 was a moment when it sort of started very optimistically and then the tide started to turn in some respects. And so what I mean by what was optimistic about that time, there were these technological innovations that were promising to change the ways that institutions, governments and citizens were interacting and working together collaboratively, I guess. I’m talking about the things like open educational resources, crowdsourcing, open data.
These were known as technological innovations that had some disruptive potential. It was sort of seen that just having the capacity to do these technological things necessarily means that our social systems and our governance systems can change. Initially, there was a lot of momentum in that sense. Like everybody was… Well, the big powerful institutions like the World Bank, and a lot of the development agencies that I was working with at the time were really excited about it. Because if you put it into context, for example, like with open educational resources, the idea is that if people were to share publicly the resources that they’re developing for their classrooms, but share it in a way that other people can take it and use it for their own purposes, so not necessarily just like a book that you can’t change, but share it in a way that people can change it, modify it, reuse it, adapt it in some way so that it would fit their purposes.
Then the idea is that schools in developing countries that do not have a lot of resources are very strapped to have qualified teachers, don’t have enough teachers, don’t have enough resources themselves, that they would be able to benefit at a larger scale by sharing these sorts of resources.
But of course, when you think about it, it doesn’t automatically happen. First of all, Internet’s a big problem, so gaining access to resources is an issue. Just being able to download and change things in a way that suits you is also like a set of skills that is really challenging. And then you’ve got all of these local systems in place that dictate what teachers need to be teaching and how they need to be teaching it. There’s so many constraints that limit the way that these technological innovations can actually impact on education systems, in other words.
That book was really about trying to foster the use of these innovations in ways that would maintain a focus on what is needed to engender positive social transformation. We have a chapter about intermediating open data and instilling writing rights, not just reading rights in the sharing of content, like an open institutional framework. So these are like principles around transparency and participation and collaboration that organizations need to develop in order to take advantage of these innovations as well as like how do you examine the trust in an institution or a relationship in these contexts?
We tried to resolve some of these key issues, but I think at the same time that we were developing this book, there was a big movement towards privatized platforms. Not a move towards, but I guess the emergence of more corporate privatized platforms for sharing information and communication resources. So, the dominant ways that people were beginning to share and communicate with each other were now being mediated by these privatized platforms, which limits the possibility for you to use some of these open innovations.
I think to a large extent, open data is still being published by governments across the world and that continues to develop and private sector and citizen organizations still benefit from those innovations. But I’d say that there’s less emphasis on that than there used to be.
Liz: Let me go to your current interests. I know that you’ve recently gotten a grant relating to intersectional approaches to trustworthy autonomous systems. I know that you also did some work previously on intersectional approaches to data with the Inclusive Data Charter. So I’m wondering if you can explain what that is about. What a
are you doing in this space? What is an intersectional approach to data?
Caitlin: So the Inclusive Data Charter is like a multi-stakeholder initiative where governments and organizations like national statistics offices and civil society organizations and other government organizations will commit to a set of principles about including all populations and data. To ensure that data is not only collected, but that it’s disaggregated usefully in order to accurately describe populations and so on and so forth. The Inclusive Data Charter supports these organizations to develop their own action plans to make data more inclusive.
Of course, as they gained some more experience, they started to notice that blindly committing to inclusivity and data and collecting all data—there are also some risks that they need to take into account when collecting data or when using it for public decision-making or so on and so forth. These organizations were starting to look at intersectionality as a way of framing a more responsible approach to the way they collect and manage and use data.
For that consultancy, my job was basically to interview all of the champions and partners about what they meant by intersectionality and how they were implementing intersectionality into their work and then to develop some recommendations that could be shared within the network of champions and partners, as well as internationally. And so we developed a number of case studies about their experiences, and we developed a primer and a white paper about what we mean by an intersectional approach to data. To me, it is a very grounded approach to understanding what an intersectional approach to data is.
What we came up with in terms of the five recommendations about establishing an intersectional approach to data was about making a commitment to centring the voices of individuals at greatest risk and marginalization in all aspects of data systems and practice.
And then they all sort of work in the frame of a data value chain. So thinking about how data is collected to manipulate it in some way for storage and then analyzed, then used, and then create some kind of impact. With intersectionality, the idea is that you need to promote equity across all of those different phases of data practice. And then the way that you use data matters. You need to collect data that helps practitioners to become more aware of the context and that would help you to reduce inequality in and through your work. And then the last principle is really to look at your own institutions and to become more inclusive in terms of who is doing data science and what types of career progression people of colour or other marginalized perspectives have in their institutions.
I think I’ll go back a second because it was sort of an interesting experience because I had previously read about intersectionality by reading the works of critical Black feminists like Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins and their work really aligns with my orientation around critical theory and taking an active stance to change unfair or unjust structures of society and to center the voices of the poorest and most marginalized in society as a way of making those changes.
After that experience, I was interested to think a bit more deeply about what an intersectional approach means from like a critical theory perspective or a critical inquiry perspective. So I think the thing that really strikes you when you read about intersectionality from within the literature created by critical Black feminists, is that intersectionality is a really about power, understanding the systems of power and oppression that shape the relationships that we have in society, our relationships with each other, but also with our systems and with technology, for example. They also really emphasize who is doing intersectionality research.
So again, that positionality about what influence we have as researchers and practitioners to create change through the use of data. I think there’s been sort of a parallel body of work that’s been coming out from feminists that are working in these areas around data science.
More recently I’ve been inspired together draw together these themes of, I guess, more critical data studies and data science perspectives with some of the more practical aspects that we were talking about through the Inclusive Data Charter work. We’re currently writing an article in which we have reviewed intersectionality research in the past three or four years.
There has been like over 4,000 articles published recently where researchers will claim to be using an intersectional approach. We wanted to understand how they use data in their research or in whatever they were writing about. Sometimes they probably wouldn’t call it research. But I think the interesting thing about intersectionality is that it has crossed so many disciplinary boundaries.
The way that you think about how multiple aspects of our identity, like our gender class, our ethnicity can come together in a time and place to shape our experiences. But also, the ways in which that notion of identity structures our social systems and our power in those systems, really resonates with so many different disciplinary perspectives that it’s just really taken off. I think what we’re just really trying to do at the moment is to synthesize all of the best lessons learned across the different areas to try and influence the way that data science is done.
In our data science course, we might teach an exploratory data analysis process, like where you just have this data and you kind of look for patterns and then you use some kind of statistical analysis or a clustering analysis or some other kind of analysis to explore that data for patterns.
An intersectional approach to data is really about questioning that approach to data analysis that is, I guess, de-linked from its context. How do you really create relationships between data and its context, where it’s come from, what it’s going to be used for? Who is it about and what role do they have in shaping that data, in validating it? Or at the same time, what risks are involved in collecting data about them or using data about them and do they have a say in how data is used about them?
Zena: So you mentioned critical Black feminists and you mentioned that connection with intersectionality and how that inspired you. I’m assuming, and this could be a wrong assumption, but I’m assuming that the critical Black feminist books and pieces of work that you read predominantly came out of the US. And so therefore they would’ve been based around power structures within that country’s ecosystem.
So I’m interested in understanding how or if at all intersectionality differs for different countries and different movements and what the commonalities of intersectionality are across different contexts.
Caitlin: Yes. That’s a great question. I think it’s a really important one that we need to keep asking. I think… I’m maybe a couple of years into this field of study. Well, I’d actually started at 3A Institute when we started asking feminists with Brenda Martin actually, we were asking feminists about their experience implementing intersectional approaches. And we were asking feminists like feminists in the Asia Pacific region.
At the time, when we were asking them, this is of course a perspective that I would say they all adopted, but we were not… Especially in the area of technology, it’s just starting to emerge in how this would actually be implemented effectively and that’s sort of what’s interesting about the research, too, right now.
But I think from our literature review, there is a massive divide in the production of research or published research that could be a result of the publishing complex, like maybe academics and practitioners that are engaged in this area in the Global South aren’t publishing in research articles.
But I think some of the most interesting examples that I’ve come across, like Ambika Tandon, the work that she has been doing, also developing the Feminist AI Principles. She shared with us in the consultancy that I did last year about the project that they had done to include domestic workers in India, in their research as researchers. So really trying to adopt an intersectional approach in developing policy recommendations for the governance of platforms that were enabling domestic workers to find and gain access to work, like how would they shape the policy agenda for those platforms? And I think, while there’s definitely some tension and different opinions about it, I think it does resonate with a lot of different cultural perspectives and a lot of different ways. There is a lot of intersectionality research going on in the Global South, especially in the development sector, I would say. But those are questions that I’m curious to keep finding out.
What do you hope our AI enabled future holds and what does it look like to you?
We started this conversation talking about the floods and the situation in Europe right now with Ukraine. It is a really hard question, I think, at the moment. I think we’re all really struggling right now. It’s been one thing after another. It’s hard to look into the future and see how it will get better.
I think the challenges are definitely really starting to look insurmountable. But I hope that our AI enabled future is greener. I want it to be fairer and more just, one that will enable more conversations and hopefully hugs, like real hugs and laughs and seeing people that I love. But I think in reality, what I really hope for is maybe for our AI enabled future to be run by more women or people of colour and ethnic minorities.
I think it’s about time that we get women and ethnic minorities behind the development of technology and into more positions of power. I think, when you think, in the grand scheme of things, the whole way that technology has emerged in our lives, a lot of the focus around technology has been about usability. So making technology so easy to use that you don’t even notice it or that it just fits into your life without any challenges.
But I hope that our AI enabled future is less about making technology invisible and more about that we’re making ourselves aware – awake to it. It’s not just coming over us like a wave. I always think about the frog and the pot, the pot getting too hot. I don’t want to be that frog. So I’m hoping that we can steer AI to overcome some of our greatest challenges around climate change, making our world fairer and more just rather than just some get richer and richer and others more powerful and more weaponized.
Zena: I really appreciated hearing you advocate for seeing more people of colour and marginalised people in positions of power. I’m interested in understanding how we can integrate technological advancements from non-Western countries into the technology we see being implemented more broadly across Western countries.
Caitlin: Yeah. That’s not an easy question to answer. I don’t think there’s straightforward answers to that either because – I think there’s a lot of great initiatives going on. Let me just use one example that gives me hope. I’m involved in a network called the A+IA, Alliance for Inclusive Algorithms, and this is a feminist network that draws together feminists across primarily countries in the Global South. It’s a way for the network to work together collaboratively, to develop a research agenda, to fund the design and development of technology in developing countries that is responsive to local communities.
To be honest, I think some of the most innovative approaches to the design and development of machine learning algorithms are coming from within that network. Recently, they had a network event and there was a phenomenal presentation by Dr. Sefala, who is a research fellow at the Distributed AI Research Institute in South Africa. She was talking about her work to develop a machine learning algorithm that could sort of predict the developments of townships in South Africa.
The whole idea is to resolve the inequalities that have been engendered by apartheid and also in urban planning and things like that. Not having data on townships and how they might grow and sprawl and things like that means that they don’t get the same level of service provision – like health and sanity and sanitation and things like that. But the thing that I thought was the most interesting about her presentation, or her approach is that the level and extent that they involved the community in both developing the dataset, in checking and verifying the model and really … The level and extent that they developed relationships with their communities was just absolutely astonishing. And I think I’m most inspired by the work that is coming out of developing countries. I realize that it’s hard to picture how we can scale up those types of works if we don’t share it widely enough.
And I think, again, that’s sort of where I see maybe people like me and you can come in by teaching these models to our students and participating in developing networks with researchers and other innovators and innovations that are going on right now. Of course, that network, as well as a lot of the innovative research that’s going on right now in Africa in particular is being funded by the International Development Research Centre of Canada, as well as the Swedish International Development Agency.
I really admire their approach. They are funding consortiums of researchers and research networks based in the Global South. It’s really changing the role of who is shaping these research agendas and who is doing the research. It’s all being my managed in those consortiums. The approach has changed since I was working with them in 2015. And I think changes like that are ones that I think are positive and are in the right direction.
Liz: I just wanted to ask, is there anything else you wanted to share with us? Anything that you wanted to talk about that we haven’t really gotten to?
Caitlin: The research that we’ve been doing with intersectional approaches to data has all been grounded in a systematic literature review as I mentioned over the past few years of intersectionality research, but I think what I’m finding more exciting now is that we’re going to try and translate all of the knowledge that we’ve gleaned from the literature and from working with the Inclusive Data Charter champions. We’re going to try and apply it in the design of trustworthy autonomous systems.
I’m working with colleagues at the University of Sheffield, as well as South Hampton and in partnership with a phenomenal research team at the University of Westminster, as well as the Maritime and Coast Guard Agency. We’re going to be working with these partners on projects that they’ve already started developing. So the University of Westminster, in that project, they’re trying to understand the risks or the likelihood that minoritized ethnic populations in the UK would want to use a chatbot to receive information about sexually transmitted infections and whether that would help or hinder their healthcare, I guess.
They’re sort of working on a set of research just to try and understand attitudes about chatbots in these communities and eventually, they’ll be working with a community organization who’s already developed a chatbot for healthcare to try and make customizations to this chatbot. I think our role in the project, from an intersectional perspective, is you don’t start from the position that the chatbot is the right thing to do. You want to first ask questions about the risks involved around the whole constellation of the system — so like how the data is collected from their conversations, where it’s stored, what risks there might be if that data is ever leaked and what impacts that would have on those communities and so on and so forth. And so our research is sort of about trying to understand how we might explain what the risks involved in using chatbots are to these communities in order to make a decision about whether it’s appropriate to use them or not.
That’s sort of one application of intersectionality in that project for healthcare. And with the Maritime Coast Guard Agency, they are establishing the policy space around autonomy, autonomous technologies in the maritime sector in the UK. With the emergence of remotely operated vessels and smart ferries and all sorts of really amazing technological innovations, it’s sort of changing who can now operate boats and ships and sea vessels and things – like people with disabilities. Do they want to drive a ship? What would be involved in including them in the design of these remotely operated vessels and how would you consider their perspectives in a design process? I’m not saying we’re focusing only on people with disabilities, but there are all sorts of communities who have otherwise been excluded from working in the maritime sector for a variety of reasons. And so we’re really going to see how like intersectionality will frame including those excluded communities in design processes. To me, I’m excited about it because it allows me to see how it can really embed this approach into technological systems.
Liz: Awesome. Sounds really good.
Zena: We’re excited to see how you progress with that project. I will just say one last thing before we head off, Caitlin. When I was doing my PhD I read a book called Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks, and she was an investigative journalist and she spent 10 years in the Middle East during the Islamic Revolution. And after I read that book, I wanted to quit my PhD and become an investigative journalist – I was so inspired by it – and I feel like that’s kind of how I feel at the end of this. I mean, you’ve been talking about intersectionality for so long, and I didn’t know very much about it before having this conversation. And now that we’ve finished this conversation, I want to scrap my research and go do some research around intersectionality because I’ve just been so inspired by it.
Caitlin: Well you might want to join our project.
Zena: Honestly, I might hit you up. Liz and I were talking earlier today about how if I could have my time back I would have done political science, and you talking about critical black feminism and then when we brought some other themes and things into it, I was very engrossed in this discussion. I found it very interesting.
Caitliin: Thank you. Have a good day you guys.
Liz: You, too! Thank you so much!
Liz: Thank you for joining us today on the Algorithmic Futures podcast. To learn more about the podcast and our guests you can visit our website algorithmicfutures.org. And if you’ve enjoyed this, please like the podcast on Apple Podcasts and share your favourite episodes with others. It really helps us get the word out.
And now for a short disclaimer: This podcast is for your education and enjoyment only. It is not intended to provide advice specific to your situation.