Informatics and Moral Obligation

We sat in our respective worlds, texting into the dark; tethered. Our outrage and anger were tempered only by that we were not alone in this one truth: when we know, we can not ignore.

“Informatics” is a broad and perhaps now-overused term; from Big Data to health, bio to cultural, community to social… All and none are accurate. Today I address the community, social, and educational informatics spheres: an imagined Venn.

That night as my colleague and I texted about what to do with clear educational data showing just how wide the educational gap between white and African American students is in the school district of the city in which we work, live, and by which we are employed, I felt a deepening frustration. Neither of us work for the school district; but we are privy to support and community networks that all acknowledge–with varying degrees of outrage–the disparity. It is not in my nature to hear and not listen; to understand and not ask for more understanding; to see and not move toward insight.

Achievement gap

I keep asking myself: when we in LIS know at both the levels of personal narrative and aggregated data of a call to justice (clear or complicated), what is our moral obligation to act? When? I put this in professional terms because I, for one, can’t ignore my professional identity and training. But I also see it as an issue in LIS, because in the workplace worlds of everyday practice, there appear to be un-even responses to leveraging community informatics. To me, a school’s performance–as flawed as our assessment tools may be in the age of (almost)-post-NCLB and not-yet-post Common Core standards and testing–is a key area of data. What a school is required to report gives a community insight into a host of other more complex social problems; problems that only the communities within the larger whole can address together.

When we drill down into these data and then layer with other data available (we even geo-tagged on our lunch hours those blocks within the school district that are shown by HUD as being below poverty level), I grow even more alarmed. When does hearing becoming listening? When does knowing becoming doing? When does doing become solving?

Informatics ethics shouldn’t be a topic left solely to health/nursing or data analytics classes. Sociotechnical and critical theory lenses are required to unpack complex social problems that are–by their nature of being in the 21st C.–digital. When we in LIS don’t question what we privilege in our operating, practitioner epistemologies, or dismiss as “theoretical” or “academic” discussions that take into account other ways of knowing, who benefits?

I suspect it isn’t those teens and their families.

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