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Northwestern workshop to cover bias in big data and LGBTQ health

Featured presenters include Data for Black Lives founder

A transgender woman in a hospital gown speaking to her doctor, a transgender man, in an exam room

Algorithms and data-based decision-making methods are often presumed to be free of human error. However, there’s growing evidence that these algorithms not only reflect human biases, but can exacerbate oppression of and discrimination against marginalized groups.

Faculty at Northwestern University’s Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing are bringing together scientists, students and community leaders for a workshop to discuss just this issue. The workshop, “Bias in Big Data: Advancing the Conversation on SGM Health,” will be July 19 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is free and open to the public.

Michelle Birkett, organizer of the workshop and director of the CONNECT Research Program, said one of the motivations behind the workshop is to bring awareness to the importance of collecting accurate and holistic data about the health of sexual and gender minority groups.

“It is only in the past 10 years that we have been able to get data on sexual and gender minority health,” Birkett said. “We are just starting to ask these questions and get evidence that bias affects health. These issues are not new, but it’s only when people decide to start measuring these constructs that we are able to see it.”

Another goal for the workshop is to amplify the discussions that are already happening on how communities of color are affected by bias in big data.   

Featured speaker Yeshimabeit Milner will discuss her work as the founder and executive director of Data for Black Lives. The organization brings together activists, organizers and scientists who are “committed to the mission of using data science to create concrete and measurable change in the lives of Black people.” 

EDIT Research Program Director Gregory Phillips, the program’s associate director, Lauren Beach, and Birkett will also give presentations at the workshop. Topics will include how automated decision-making and a lack of diversity and community engagement in data science perpetuate bias. There also will be a discussion about the specific challenges and opportunities experienced by sexual and gender minority populations.

The workshop is sponsored by the Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing, the Health Equity Hub within the Department of Medical Social Sciences, the Center for Health Equity Transformation, the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems and the Northwestern Data Science Initiative.

In the interest of accessibility, the full workshop will be livestreamed and all materials and resources discussed will be available online.   

Register for the workshop here.

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