Google Research

Bringing the People Back In: Contesting Benchmark Machine Learning Datasets

  • Emily Denton
  • Alex Hanna
  • Razvan Amironesei
  • Andrew Smart
  • Hilary Nicole
  • Morgan Klaus Scheuerman
Participatory Approaches to Machine Learning, ICML 2020 Workshop (2020)


In response to algorithmic unfairness embedded in sociotechnical systems, significant attention has been focused on the contents of machine learning datasets which have revealed biases towards white, cisgender, male, and Western data subjects. In contrast, comparatively less attention has been paid to the histories, values, and norms embedded in such datasets. In this work, we outline a research program - a genealogy of machine learning data - for investigating how and why these datasets have been created, what and whose values influence the choices of data to collect, the contextual and contingent conditions of their creation. We describe the ways in which benchmark datasets in machine learning operate as infrastructure and pose four research questions for these datasets. This interrogation forces us to "bring the people back in" by aiding us in understanding the labor embedded in dataset construction, and thereby presenting new avenues of contestation for other researchers encountering the data.

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