Data activism and the fight for social justice in Scotland

I was sat in a police interview room in Edinburgh. My call to 101 that morning to report transphobic graffiti on the university campus had escalated quickly. By mid-afternoon, I was scrolling-through photographs on my phone with a police officer and signing a witness statement.

A few months later and I was registering an official complaint against a university for a breach of its own equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) policies. Reading and re-reading official documents to pinpoint exactly where the institution’s actions had departed from their stated policies.

I engaged with these processes aware that they were unlikely to bring about meaningful change. My call to 101 was not going to trigger a squad of officers to painstakingly review CCTV footage to identify the culprit nor was my single complaint going to upturn the university’s approach to events and speakers. However, as someone who collects and analyses EDI data on a regular basis, it felt necessary to engage with these institutional systems and register that something was wrong.

When people discuss EDI data, conversation tends to focus on headline statistics such as the average pay gap between female and male employees or the attainment gap between white and black students at university. Although these statistics are hugely important, and have rightly shined a light on these inequalities, they represent a tiny fraction of potential data related to EDI.

Edinburgh wishes to position itself as the data capital of Europe. Yet, we still know very little about the diversity profile of the city or Scotland as a whole. For example, using 2011 census data, we know that 4.0% of people in Scotland were from a non-White minority ethnic group. This figure was higher in Glasgow (12.0%), Edinburgh (8.0%) and Aberdeen (8.0%). We also know that in Scotland 30.0% of women and 26.0% of men disclosed a long-term limiting mental or physical health condition or disability. However, efforts to analyse the intersection of identities such as ethnicity, gender and disability remain in their infancy. Without this vital information, there are potentially many nuances related to inequality and discrimination that we do not yet know.

Data collection

Although intersectional analysis of data related to sex/gender, race and ethnicity, age and disability is patchy, the quality of data on these characteristics remains light years ahead compared to the data that exists for some identity groups.

For example, Scotland’s 2021 census will be the first national count of people’s sexual orientation and trans status/history. This landmark move will present a clearer idea of who we are as nation. However, against this progressive backdrop, the Scottish Government decided against expanding the response options to the sex question to include people who identify as non-binary. The sex question is one of the few mandatory questions in the census. This means that many non-binary respondents will have no choice but to register themselves incorrectly as either male or female.

National Records of Scotland
National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh (Photo: Alamy)

The absence of non-binary people from Scotland’s 2021 census and inaccurate recording of those who complete the census is unlikely to jeopardise the quality of the data collected. However, not being counted means something. My work involves the collection of equality monitoring data and I am often asked ‘Do we really need to ask about a person’s trans status/history? or ‘Is asking about a person’s religion or belief necessary?’ There is a clear subtext to these questions: is that identity characteristic important enough or valued enough to be counted?

Insidious comments, such as these, highlight how the weaponisation of EDI data is already upon us. To get money from large funding bodies, we need to know our data. To justify the existence of a social or cultural group that exclusively works with marginalised communities, we need to know our data. Data is ammunition. Data is power.

The numbers are not too small

Too often work to tackle inequality, disadvantage and discrimination in Scotland is excused because the ‘numbers are too small’. People make sense of society through their own circles and networks. When those inside these circles and networks look and sound similar, difference becomes understood as something that happens outside of Scotland. The importance of ‘knowing our numbers’ has become apparent during this summer’s Fringe, with campaigns such as Jessica Brough’s Fringe of Colour and Harry Josephine Giles’ TransFringe documenting the existence of acts and performers from marginalised groups in a cultural context that is overwhelmingly white and cisgender.

Data is more than numbers and text — it also presents a way for us to shout loudly ‘Look here, a problem exists’! Upskilling activists in data literacy will empower us to demonstrate the pervasive problems of inequality, representation and exclusion in Scotland. Those who hold the power are already using data as an excuse for inaction – we must reclaim this ground and ensure that data empowers the work of activists to bring about effective change.

Published by Kevin Guyan

Dr Kevin Guyan is a researcher, writer and activist based in Edinburgh whose work explores the intersection of data and identity.

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