Vesna Manojlovic

Data Feminism: From Data Ethics to Data Justice

Vesna Manojlovic
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For International Women’s Day, Vesna Manojlovic has been looking into data justice from an intersectional feminism perspective. Read how the RIPE community can benefit from involving users in the design processes for collecting, storing and visualising data.

"Data science is a form of power. The narratives around big data and data science are overwhelmingly white, male, and techno-heroic. Data Feminism presents a new way of thinking about data science and data ethics—one that is informed by intersectional feminist thought.

Data science has been used to expose injustice, improve health outcomes, and topple governments. But it has also been used to discriminate, police, and surveil. This potential for good, on the one hand, and harm, on the other, makes it essential to ask: Data science by whom? Data science for whom? Data science with whose interests in mind? 

Data Feminism offers strategies for data scientists seeking to learn how feminism can help them work toward justice."

From Data Feminism, by Catherine D'Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein

Lots of people from all across the RIPE community are involved in activities that relate, in some form or other, to data science. And while certain ethical questions that revolve around the field enter community discussion and debate more and more, there are yet still bigger questions about how approaches extend from the concepts of ethics and transparency to broader notions of justice and reflexivity. Indeed, with data science having become such a force in our industry, it is important to ask questions about: 

"Who has [the power] and who doesn't, and about how those differentials of power can be challenged and changed." 


From Ethics to Justice 

During 2016-2019, I gave several presentations on the topics of Ethics in Internet Measurements and Ethics in Technology. There I pointed out that, in order for the kinds of measurements we work with - and, more generally, the technology underlying those measurements - to be ethical, it should take into consideration end users. We ought to gather the data we do in order to help fulfil the needs of the end user, and we must never do harm in the process.

The principles of collecting measurement data in an ethical way can be summarised as follows: 

  • Respect responsibilities resulting from power imbalances
  • Get meaningful, informed consent
  • Weigh risks, benefits and values for an ethical analysis
  • Do not condone potentially unethical research methods

 - from Ethics in Networked Systems Research

During 2020, under the influence of intersectional feminist scholars, and views on data justice, I have learnt that overcoming biases and aiming for transparency are only the first steps: the next level is to challenge existing power structures, by aiming for justice in addition to ethics, and by practicing co-liberation on top of accountability. 

The main source and reference has been Data Feminism, a book by Catherine D'Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein and a series of workshops I took part in.

In addition to the content of this book being relevant to the RIPE community, the process by which the book was created followed the feminist principles of the Internet by using collective knowledge gathering and dissemination, having an “open review” process, and offering the book as open-access.  

Input to the RIPE Community 

Like the other technical communities, the RIPE community has been struggling to increase diversity by taking actions to be more inclusive towards underrepresented groups in the community.

One of the activities that can benefit from implementing Data Feminism principles is collecting data about gender equality at our events. But beyond that, there are lessons here that I believe can have a real impact on the outlook of certain RIPE Working Groups (WGs). Here are some notes and pointers to links that will hopefully help others go further here. 

Database WG

Most recent discussions about the privacy of user data and access to historical records in the Database WG can gain perspective from this quote:

...while the emphasis of data projects is often to develop a time-bounded thing – a database, an algorithm, a model, a visualization  – it's important to remember that the longer-term goal is to build meaningful, authentic, on-going relationships across differences in power and privilege in order to transform yourself and your institution and the world. 


This is how the RIPE community's Measurements, Analysis and Tools Working Group can most directly benefit from the  "Data Feminism" insights -- there are many open data sources for researchers; there is code available for developers to re-use, and potential cooperation with the academic community:

Other Technical Internet Governance Communities 

There are many communities adjacent to RIPE that have been working on the topics of empowerment, justice and feminist approach, as I wrote in the following articles: 

Informative to the RIPE community's efforts to measure impact of COVID-19 crisis on Internet infrastructure is a book on Data Justice and COVID-19 (free PDF)  


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About the author

Vesna Manojlovic is Community Builder at RIPE NCC. Vesna joined the RIPE NCC as a Trainer in 1999. In 2003, she took responsibility for developing and delivering advanced courses, such as RPSL, Routing Registry, DNSSEC and IPv6. In 2008, she lead efforts to establish IPv6 RIPEness as a measure of IPv6 deployment among LIRs. In 2011, she joined the Science Division as Manager of the Measurements Community Building team; in 2015 she moved to Communications Department as Senior Community Builder, with a focus on organising hackathons. Vesna gives presentations at many technical conferences and workshops, and enjoys visiting hackerspaces. Vesna received a Batchelor of Sciences Degree in Computer Science and Informatics from the School of Electrical Engineering, University of Belgrade. She has three children.

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