By Salmana Ahmed

Promoting equity and justice in digital technology

Why we invested: Upturn

One of the biggest challenges facing society today by way of the impacts of automated technology, is that the understanding and expertise of organisations that protect the public interest does not match the speed and intensity with which these technologies are being deployed. Automated decisions increasingly affect people’s lives, particularly those who are most vulnerable and at the margins of society. The dynamic is severely skewed in favour of powerful institutions, and the public sector and civil society often lack the tools and knowledge to meaningfully participate in shaping how technology-mediated decisions unfold. 

Upturn works to bridge this gap. Based in Washington, DC, Upturn promotes equity and justice in the design, governance and use of digital technology. Its research and advocacy is technically grounded and is focused on addressing social inequities, especially those rooted in race and poverty. With a lean and expert team, Upturn has already built a great reputation over the past five years. In its economic opportunity work, it has led major online platforms to take meaningful steps like banning online ads for predatory “payday” loans and strengthening prohibitions against discriminatory ads for housing, employment and credit. It has led civil society efforts to push back against increased police surveillance and the adoption of new predictive tools across the criminal legal system. The team has proven to be effective researchers, advocates, and collaborators, and equally at ease working with academics, policymakers, activists, and engineers alike.

Luminate’s relationship with Upturn was seeded via a grant in 2016. As a funder operating in the data rights field, we were curious to better understand what could be done to empower the public and civil society writ large to effectively scrutinise, understand, and help govern automated decisions. We enlisted Upturn to explore that question. What resulted was a thoughtful and insightful report that presented a now increasingly cited framework outlining how automated systems have been evaluated. The report has been well received and is a great example of Upturn’s ability to provide accessible and actionable frameworks of understanding on complex issues. Last August, we were pleased to build on this relationship and continue our support to Upturn by providing core funding of $750,000 over the next three years to the team.

Upturn’s research and advocacy efforts cut across criminal justice, economic opportunity, and open and secure communications, and are underpinned by key partnerships with civil rights, public interest, and advocacy groups in the US. Upturn’s portfolio of research and advocacy is impressive, with recent work including: a report examining popular predictive hiring tools used by employers and their impact on equity throughout the hiring process; comments to the California Judicial Council on the use of pre-trial risk assessment tools and the implications for civil rights; and a legal brief in a court case involving Facebook’s Ad platform and its role in targeting and delivering housing advertisements based on protected status.   

Consistent across all of Upturn’s work is its ability to identify and translate the most critical technical issues across disciplines; effectively utilise the appropriate methods and tools to engage and educate key stakeholders; and move comfortably between audiences to leverage their research and insights where it matters most. This is a real value-add in a field which is faced with an overwhelming number of emergent challenges, and a growing set of often disparate and technical efforts aiming to understand the impacts of automated technology and mitigate its harmful consequences. 

At Luminate, the recognition that data and technology are reflections of power – the power of those who collect data and those who design the technology. This deeply motivates us to support and learn from organisations like Upturn that are working to secure and uphold the rights of people and communities and advocate for more empowering, equitable, and just outcomes with regards to the role of technology in society.

If you are interested in learning more about social justice and technology, sign up for Upturn’s weekly newsletter, Equal Future.