15 December 2023

Democracy Technologies: Tell us about the Radical Data project. How did it get started?

Rayén Jara Mitrovich: Radical Data is a small collective, with Jo Kroese and me at its nucleus. Our mission is to redefine technology as a tool for communities, subverting its oppressive uses by big tech. We focus on subversion, resistance, and the joy of collaborative resistance as an affirmative way of life. Amid the digital and AI paradigm shift, we see this moment as an opportunity to reclaim agency and create something special for our world.

Jo initiated Radical Data as a research project in 2019, creating an archive of radical data projects. Our paths crossed two years ago, combining Jo’s background in data science with my artistic perspective. We’ve evolved into a studio and collective, not just archiving projects but also creating our own, as well as offering workshops, and promoting a multidisciplinary approach to art, activism, and technology.

DT: What kinds of organisations do you collaborate with when conducting workshops?

Jara Mitrovich: The range of organisations we work with is quite diverse. It’s a wide variety based on people’s interests, desires, questions, or needs within the scope of our work. It spans from digital activism groups in Berlin to direct collaborations with communities.

For instance, one project involves working with the Rapa Nui people from a Polynesian island in Chile, addressing their specific needs through data collection. We also engage with neighbourhoods, individuals with personal questions, and even NGOs or political parties. We tried to provide some support through a statistical analysis during the constitution referendum in Chile.

DT: Can you tell us a bit more about the Chilean constitution project?

Jara Mitrovich: Being Chilean, of course, I’m closely connected to the ongoing events, and our engagement with the constitutional process was significant. Initially, stemming from the 2019 Revolution, there were collective demands including a new constitution to replace the current one which was written during the dictatorship.

We joined the scene later in the ‘apruebo y rechazo’ [‘I approve / I reject’] process when the right wing initiated a massive campaign of disinformation. Despite initially thinking the constitution would win, we realised the need for support due to a substantial difference in resources between the government proposal (‘Apruebo’) and the opposition (‘Rechazo’). With Jo’s expertise in a statistical method called MRP (multilevel regression with poststratification) used for political polling, our aim was to provide data analysis to help in targeting specific areas for outreach, attempting to counter misinformation, by directly speaking to people and actually showing them the constitution. 

In the end, we lost. One of the main reasons is that people didn’t get to read the constitution. At the same time, right-wing groups told people: “they will cancel Christmas and they will steal your home.” The experience was really interesting. We saw that this method could be relevant to be able to reach the people with the real content of the constitutional proposal. We unfortunately lacked the resources and capacity to play a bigger role at the time. So we went to Chile after losing and kept working together with them, since the process is still open.

We are now also working with museums in Chile, including the Museum of Human Rights. It’s a big deal because it’s the 50th anniversary of the dictatorship this year. Not all of our work is tied up with Latin America, but we are working together with communities and institutions to build technologies for and by the people.

DT: What would your message be to those who feel like AI speaks with the voice of the global North, a male voice? Or that technology is advancing whether we’re ready for it or not? 

Jara Mitrovich: Let’s organise. It’s easy to fall into hopelessness when faced with the enormity of the challenges. Personally, I’ve felt overwhelmed, depressed, stuck, and feeling like I can’t change anything. Yet, there’s a personal connection through my family’s history of resisting dictatorship, facing torture, exile, and the loss of friends. Those experiences connect with the joy of affirming life through resistance. Coming from a continent that historically has been oppressed over generations and generations, going back centuries, I think we learned that resistance is a way of life. It is a way of bringing dignity to our lives.

We don’t want to come across as naive about the critical perspectives on technology and its reinforcement of colonial structures, patriarchy and surveillance systems. This is a topic we’ve extensively discussed at Radical Data. 

And it’s not about victimisation but about agency. The process is about realising we’re not alone, decolonizing ourselves, and accepting imperfections. Being together in this messy, imperfect fight is essential.

DT: You mention that Radical Data works at the intersection of art, activism, and technology. Does that approach involve more than just practical applications of technology?

Jara Mitrovich: For Radical Data, it’s not only about developing practical apps. Coming from a background in performance art and a deep engagement with performativity in diverse contexts, including prisons and rural spaces in Chile, we bring an artistic and performative element to our work. While we may not align entirely with the contemporary art scene due to its apolitical and elitist nature, we recognise the importance of reclaiming the artistic part of resistance. This is part of imagination as a political practice. Sometimes it’s about imagining new horizons that are not there, and the need to reclaim the potential of imagination.

DT: How does the artistic aspect fit into the work of Radical Data?

Jara Mitrovich: As an artist, I view the artistic aspect as a crucial element in our collective. While we engage with a lot of fields, such as the hackerspace scene, we don’t fully immerse ourselves in any one area. We bring artistic practices into play to address the lack of imagination, playfulness, and sometimes political action in certain spaces. Reclaiming imagination and incorporating artistic methods into our projects, which sometimes is an app or a tool, and sometimes an assembly.

As an artist, my approach involves developing a methodology that isn’t focused on having a specific end result. It’s more about embracing the unknown and relating with the messiness of things, working also in a horizontal way with communities, a lot of things that for me come much more from artistic political practices rather than any other fields.

DT: When it comes to reaching marginalised communities, what advice do you have for ensuring that the right people are heard, especially those without an established voice or with limited access to communication channels?

Jara Mitrovich: It’s a challenging aspect, but for me, it’s crucial to truly connect with people. The term “representation” ties into a broader concept of building things with the people who have the lived experiences relevant to what you want to create. Having lived in Europe for a relatively short time, about 5 or 6 years, I’ve observed a hidden paternalism in European activism. It’s important to avoid instructing or trying to represent without being immersed in the communities you aim to serve. 

My advice is just go there. Don’t go to the representatives, don’t go to the leaders, don’t go to organisations, just go to the communities. It’s essential to work alongside people, engaging with them directly. Surveys and formal structures might not be as effective as facilitating communities to organise and find their own voices.

In the Latin American way of life, and for us at Radical Data, informal spaces play a significant role in political organisation. It’s not just about formal assemblies or meetings; it happens everyday, like tea time with neighbours or sharing food in the street. For those trying to reach marginalised communities, understanding and valuing these informal spaces is crucial. Building a genuine connection involves spending time in these informal settings, getting to know people intimately, and understanding the grassroots reality. It’s about recognising when technology is necessary in the process and when simple human interactions, like a cup of tea with someone in the street, are more impactful. The key is knowing when to use the right tools and understanding that offline engagement is often vital.

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