Government transparency is a hallmark of a free, open, and democratic society.  In a democracy, the people rule. But it’s hard to advocate for reforms or policy changes when we don’t know what our government is doing. We can’t manage what we don’t measure.

That’s why the ACLU of Massachusetts created the Data for Justice Project. We hope the project will arm activists, advocates, journalists, policy makers, and elected officials with relevant, timely information about how government functions—so we can fix it when it doesn’t.

Why data matters

A few years ago, the Massachusetts state legislature embarked on an ambitious project to reform the criminal legal system. Legislators were moved by personal stories of injustice, and also by data that revealed the systemic nature of these injustices.

Although Massachusetts incarcerates fewer people per capita than most other states, we have a higher incarceration rate than most countries in the world, and among the worst racial disparities anywhere on earth. These depressing data points helped to move the legislature to take bold action to pass omnibus criminal justice reform that, among other things, eliminated mandatory minimum sentencing for certain drug offenses.

Also tucked in to the omnibus criminal justice reform law was an open data measure backed by the ACLU, mandating that the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security collect arrest data from every police department statewide, and publish it on a regular basis on the state’s website.

That reform is critical, because despite progress, we still don’t know nearly enough about what our government is doing, especially regarding criminal legal system information about arrests, prosecutions, incarceration, and probation and parole.

Even when we can get our hands on data from the criminal legal system, the information is often messy and difficult to work with  sometimes even locked inside PDF files that need to be OCRed or transcribed by hand into a usable format.

Making real the promise of open government in the digital age

The Data for Justice Project is an initiative by the ACLU of Massachusetts that aims to make data actionable, empowering lawyers, advocates, community organizers, journalists, activists, and the general public by:

  • liberating government data sets and making them available in digestible formats;
  • publishing documents obtained through ACLU of Massachusetts public records and Freedom of Information Act requests;
  • advocating for open government at the municipal, county, and state levels;
  • developing tools and dashboards to make complex data sets accessible to ordinary people; and
  • using data to tell stories to advance the ACLU of Massachusetts’ legislative advocacy.

The Data for Justice Project is a community resource and public education platform. We encourage data scientists, activists, and others to submit analyses of data sourced from this website, and recommend data sets we should include here. Submission does not guarantee publication. But if your work is compelling, we will work with you to give it a home. For more information, or to get involved, please contact the ACLU of Massachusetts Data for Justice Project at data [at] aclum [dot] org.

Special thanks to Paola Villarreal, who as a Technology Fellow worked with the ACLU of Massachusetts to develop the concept of the Data for Justice Project. 

Special Thanks