Written by: Zach Perry (image from www.dbta.com)
A University at Albany professor has co-created an LGBT news database that compiles events from around the world and judges their effects to quantify the climate in a country or state concerning LGBT issues.
The database, or UAlbany LGBTQ+ Activity Tracker, aims to provide “real-time, useful data to help keep people safe,” according to the university.
This tracker is “A place where if you want to take a look at what‘s going on a day to day basis in the LGBT community, you can,” according to Dr. Victor Asal, the professor who developed it with the market research firm Nowigence.
The tracker is intended for use by activists, policymakers and academics alike, especially in Albany, allowing them to view news and activity on a global scale, Asal said.
“Albany is a place where there are students that are mobilized and faculty that are mobilized,” he said.
Asal said he hopes that the tracker can serve as a comprehensive and holistic archive for news and activity affecting the LGBT community, the first of its kind that he is aware of.
HOW IT WORKS
A computer program compiles events from news sources around the world and makes various assessments about each event’s impact, sentiment and scope to place it on a scale from -42 to 42, Asal explained.
The impact and scope are determined by the number of people that an action affects, how it affects them and to what degree. Sentiment refers to the perceived negativity or positivity expressed towards the LGBT community by an action or person.
A research intern then sifts through the entries and edits those with scores that do not accurately reflect the scale, which aims to calibrate the computer over time to become more accurate.
Countries like Russia and Tunisia have relatively negative scores, both around -15, earned from propaganda and government violence. Others, such as Pakistan and Kenya, hover near +7, due to their inclusive health care policies and progressive transgender rights legislation.
A country being on the positive side of the scale, however, does not mean that it is free of negative events, Asal explained. For example, the United States has a cumulative score of +2.46, but Asal indicated that there are many negatives.
In April, the Justice Department dropped its lawsuit condemning North Carolina’s transgender bathroom bill, prompting criticism from LGBT activists who say that gay and transgender people are still not protected from discrimination.
In March, the Supreme Court rejected a potentially landmark transgender bathroom rights case after President Trump reversed a policy which had directed schools to allow students to use the bathroom consistent with their gender identity.
However, Asal drew a contrast between the tracker, which catalogues singular events, and other tools used by organizations that map global sexual orientation laws, such as the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA).
He further emphasized the importance of distinguishing between laws and events.
Negative laws and government policies, he said, can be motivators for more positive protests. So, while a country may have a slew of positive events, and therefore a more positive score on the scale, it may just be an indicator that there is a strong protest movement responding to strict policies, and not necessarily an LGBT-supportive government.
Asal stressed that the system is not flawless and is still “a work in progress.”
He said that the scale is not a perfect metric for comparing the severity of events, but hopes that as time goes by, the tracker can become more precise.
Three recent events all received a score of -30: Russia’s banning of an image portraying President Vladimir Putin as a “gay clown,” Malaysia’s censoring of “gay moments” in the Disney film, “Beauty and the Beast,” and South Sudan’s continued refusal to legalize homosexuality.
When asked why these incidents were rated equally, Asal said that the tracker does not have errorless judgment, which is why having an intern review each entry is so vital.
Asal hopes that he and Nowigence, a START-UP NY company, can gain more funding in the future. This way, they can expand the project and give it greater capabilities like retroactively compiling entries from the past.
UAlbany English professor Dr. Tamika Carey, who teaches race, gender and identity issues, praised the efforts and intentions of the tool’s creators, but raised concerns about the utility of the impact scale.
“The tracker is fascinating because it seems to want to quantify progress and I don’t know if it’s that easy,” Carey said.
She noted the importance of archiving and collecting, but expressed caution about the use of the numerical values given to each event
However, Carey compared the tool favorably to the Southern Poverty and Law Center’s Hate Map, which collects data on hate groups operating in the U.S. and displays their location on a map.
“The need for a database like this is high. I think it’s vitally necessary,” she said.