Our team here at Button live and breathe our work culture, an employee centric organization established on diversity, equity, inclusion and sense of belonging. On June 2, 2022, we were delighted to see the British Columbia Government introduced a law that would enable government to collect, use, and disclose demographic data, for the good.

The data doesn't lie

This type of disaggregated data—that is, data broken down into subcategories rather than all grouped together—can be used to identify inequalities and indications of systemic racism. The identity information being collected includes race, ethnicity, faith, gender, sex, ability, and income. 

It’s an approach to large-scale data that has been called for for decades, but particularly in recent years, both in BC and elsewhere. The issue became especially prominent after demographic data from many regions showed noteworthy racial, gender, and class disparities in the direct and indirect effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Less-direct demographic data from BC reinforced this, finding that neighbourhoods with large South Asian communities were particularly affected)

Stakeholders from regions without such data grew concerned that the same things were happening where they lived, but their governments were not quantifying and analyzing it enough.

What the new law will do

BC’s new law is intended to do that— to “help to identify where systemic racism is taking place and to create a more inclusive, equitable province.” It has a particular focus on government services and aims to identify cases of systemic racism that occur “when Indigenous, Black and other racialized communities have worse access to certain government programs and services, or have worse outcomes than British Columbians overall when they access them.”

These new efforts to improve service delivery look to take a more holistic and in-practice view of racial and other disparities in the province, with an eye to recognizing and analyzing disparity as it actually occurs. Many laws or systems may not appear discriminatory on their face, but end up being accessed or administrated much differently across demographics through a variety of intentional and unintentional factors. 

What do these disparities look like?

The issues at play may be fairly straightforward—a service is not offered in a particular language, for instance. Or they may be multifaceted and intersectional—members of a particular ethnicity may also be likelier to work in particular industries and live in particular areas and types of households, and as a result deal disproportionately with experiences and risks that tend to come with those variables. In BC, the simple factor of lower rates of access to internet connectivity in Indigenous communities results in significant disparities in access to work, education, and government services. 

Having the data that can show areas in which this is happening gives governments—and the people who hold them to account—a way to notice inequity, learn more about why it may be happening, and do something.

This priority stems in part from November 2020’s In Plain Sight report, which found that anti-Indigenous racism was widespread in the BC healthcare system in forms including overt discrimination, differences in treatment, and disparities in access to care. 

However, solving these issues is complex not only on a social level but in data handling itself.

Its a work in progress

While the new act is a great start in the right direction, it will also require iteration—that ongoing improvement and refinement required to make a process or tool successful and meaningful. 

As an example, Indigenous communities can be looked at as a demographic, but within that demographic are much deeper areas that need to be focused on and are less easy to classify due to unincorporated areas that have high proportions of Indigenous people. They aren’t towns or cities, but they have place names and they are largely Indigenous. Because of the colonial government’s systems years ago, we rely on classification of incorporated towns & cities, these people aren’t represented as well. They still have a voice that is equal to everyone else and government must offer the same services, but since people living in these areas don’t fit into the box of the defined demographic, it’s a gray area that complicates data collection and comparison.

Another wrinkle: due to a well-deserved mistrust of historical colonial government, some Indigenous people don’t complete the census. Thus we don’t have an accurate picture of everyone, and everyone can’t receive the same services without this important data. Collecting data isn’t the only way. We need to also look at other cultures’ ways of understanding how to serve the needs of everyone in addition to the traditional practice of data collection.

Ultimately, a lot of trust must be built and affected communities must have control and choice.

Incorporating the Act responsibly

Beginning in fall 2021  BC consulted with 13,000 affected residents and major stakeholder groups (such as the BC Human Rights Commissioner and First Nations Leadership Council). In May 2022 it introduced the Act with three key aims: 

1. Breaking down barriers for people to access programs.

2. Ensuring racialized people aren’t disproportionately targeted.

3. Improving programs and services so more people feel safe getting the help they need.

Then in September 2022, it announced an Anti-Racism Data Committee of 11 people it will work with on the task of removing and preventing systemic racism in the public sector. 

There remain key issues to navigate around how to roll out the Act. The value of more comprehensive data from the population must be done in a way compatible with personal privacy and information safety, which the province has as its highest priority. 

Safety and privacy measures in the Act implementations mostly relate to consent, transparency, and parameters. Notice is given when data is to be collected or used (e.g. through language on the document the person is filling out); data collection is voluntary (and makes clear that it is voluntary); and there are frameworks and limitations for how and why the data can go on to be used and publicized. A report from McMillan further outlines the considerations here, and gives further examples of what their implementation looks like. 

Communities have told us repeatedly how important it is that this data is not used to further perpetuate existing harms or unintentionally create new harms,” Minister of Citizens’ Services Lisa Beare said in the Act announcement. 

The BC Human Rights Commissioner’s report on these data-use concerns emphasizes the need for a strong researcher-to-community relationship rooted in using data for care rather than control or surveillance, and stresses data sovereignty: a community’s control of its own data “throughout the stages of data collection, storage, use (including analysis and interpretation), and distribution.

To this end, the Commissioner recommended an Indigenous data governance model, rooted in the nation-to-nation relationship. Other recommendations include making clear that differences stem from structural issues and not individual failures or mythical innate racial differences, and using rigorous best-practices to keep personal identities separate from final data. 

BC will also release data annually, beginning this summer, and do periodic reviews of the Act. This fits the priorities of digital government: iterating not only to improve and respond, but also to fosters trust from the affected communities with an ongoing relationship, not a one-off info extraction.

At the end of the day, this is an opportunity to do better. We are at a place in time where more equitable, inclusive, and welcoming digital solutions for everyone are starting to evolve forward rapidly. While it will take time, we are off to a good start, and this new law has created a positive forward motion in the required and painful process of identify and address systemic racism and other inequities, and it will only result in better digital services and solutions.

Image Credit: Alfonso Estevez / Midjourney

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