Data Justice For Development: What Would It Mean?

Richard Heeks and Jaco Renken


This paper looks at the intersection of two growing trends in international development –use of justice in development theory, and use of data in development practice – and asks what data-justice-for-development would mean.  The rationale for this can be the presence of current data injustices, and different framings for data injustice point to three different mainstream perspectives on data justice: instrumental, procedural, and distributive/rights-based.  These three perspectives are explained but they are also subject to small data, sustainability, Senian, and structural critiques.

A full understanding of the mainstream perspectives and conceptualisation of the critiques is largely the task of a future research agenda.  However, the paper does particularly argue that a structural approach should be the foundation for understanding data justice in a development context.  It offers three potential ways to conceptualise structural data justice – through the ideas of Iris Marion Young, of political economy, and of the capability approach – and ends with some thoughts on the practical agenda when seeking to deliver structural data justice for development.

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Educators’ guide

Synopsis questions

  1. What literature does this paper draw on?  [Section A]
  2. What are the different ways in which development-related data injustice can be framed?  [Section B]
  3. What are the mainstream perspectives on data justice that the paper describes, and how do they differ?  [Section C]
  4. What are the four critiques of mainstream perspectives on data justice?  [Section D]
  5. What are the three different ways in which structural data justice might be conceptualised?  [Section E]
  6. What might be the action agenda to deliver structural data justice for development?  [Section E]

Development questions

  1. Is the idea of justice of any practical value to data-intensive development, or just an idea for armchair philosophers?
  2. Should we be more concerned with “information justice” than “data justice”?
  3. If you had to categorise the different types of data injustice that exist in relation to international development; what categories would you use, and why?
  4. To what extent does this paper engage with its “for development” component?
  5. Should structural data justice be the foundational perspective on data justice; or should it be some other perspective?
  6. Identify two practical actions you could take to try to strengthen data justice for development