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National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans

Numbers and justice have long kept company, as the paired words counting and accounting attest. If you can count something, you can also account for it

Enumerating is thought to be the most objective instrument we have for holding those in power accountable, whether for financial misdeeds in a company (Power, 1997), civilian casualties in conflict zones

police brutality in a community, health disparities around a country, pollution hotspots across regions, or harms caused by the world’s changing climate (IPCC, 2014). In these and countless other situations, good societies have governed themselves by acknowledging how many instances there are of questionable conduct, where they took place, who is responsible for them, and how they relate to other norms and values of human concern.

Inevitably, then, today’s explosion of data, a by-product of the computer revolution, has created new conjunctions between numbers and norms. Social and natural phenomena can be counted and stored in previously unimaginable quantities and on ever larger scales, allowing correlations to be made and patterns to be discerned where ignorance, speculation, and conjecture formerly prevailed. Phenomena of potential normative interest that may once have escaped detection—because they were too intangible, too dispersed, too costly to measure, or too jurisdictionally bounded, and hence not anyone’s duty to call to someone else’s attention—have become less elusive. Across a host of legal and policy domains, from environmental degradation to human rights abuses, once undetectable phenomena are now being recorded, their distributions mapped and plotted, and their interconnections investigated, laying the groundwork for new claims and appeals to conscience, if not to demands for formal justice.1 Simultaneously, it has become possible to combine inputs from multiple large data sources to generate new hypotheses about the way the world works and prescriptions for how to act upon that knowledge.

The institutional capacity to count and correlate has also exploded. Compiling big data was once the business of states. The bureaucratic resources of national governments were needed to produce census-like counts of populations, biological species, or more complex social and natural phenomena (e.g., poverty, violence, drug abuse, educational attainments, desertification, or antimicrobial resistance). States, moreover, had an interest in reliable enumerations of where people and goods could be found for purposes of population management, domestic security, health protection or calling people up for military service. Infamously, Germany’s Nazi regime used Herman Hollerith’s tabulating machine, originally developed in response to an 1888 challenge from the US Census Bureau,2 to record data on the Jewish population in the 1930s; one such machine is among the first objects to greet the visitor to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Today, with the ease of crowd-sourcing and the ubiquity of recording instruments of all kinds, many nonstate actors have also acquired the means to become de facto census takers.