Beyond Resilience: Shalini Kantayya on ‘Coded Bias’ and Data Rights as Human Rights

Firelight Media
6 min readMay 24, 2021

Editor’s Note: As part of Firelight Media’s Beyond Resilience Series, we’re commissioning Firelight-supported filmmakers to share reflections on their own challenges, strategies, and experiences of creating and distributing work during periods of social transformation. In this edition, Shalini Kantayya, a Firelight Media Impact Campaign Fund grantee and Documentary Lab alum reflects on the impact campaign work she and her team have been engaged in surrounding her film Coded Bias. As part of that work, on May 17, 2021, they launched a social media campaign for the “Universal Declaration of Data Rights as Human Rights.”

‘Coded Bias’ — About the Film

Modern society sits at the intersection of two crucial questions: What does it mean when artificial intelligence increasingly governs our liberties? And what are the consequences for the people AI is biased against? When MIT Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini discovers that many facial recognition technologies do not accurately detect darker-skinned faces or classify the faces of women, she delves into an investigation of widespread bias in algorithms. As it turns out, artificial intelligence is not neutral, and women are leading the charge to ensure our civil rights are protected.

Directed by Shalini Kantayya, Coded Bias had its broadcast premiere on PBS Independent Lens on March 22, 2021 and is now streaming globally on Netflix.

Building Coalitions and Creating Tools for Activists

The Coded Bias Activist Toolkit, available at

The Coded Bias team structured our impact campaign around building a coalition and creating a central resource to highlight, connect, and amplify all of the great work that’s happening in the field of algorithmic justice. Our impact team reached out to organizations to learn about their ongoing campaigns and to learn how the film could be a tool to amplify the important work that they’re doing.

We actually converged a special screening and panel for over a hundred grassroots organizations doing work around data rights and algorithmic justice. Afterwards, we followed up via email to find out if they might be interested in hosting a screening and if they had ongoing campaigns that we could plug on our website and add to our Activist Toolkit — and we began to build this broad coalition of organizations in the field. ACLU, Big Brother Watch UK, and others were involved in the making of Coded Bias, so they were already invested in the film’s engagement.

Using Documentary as a Tool For Social Transformation

What Coded Bias seeks to do is to amplify heroic voices in the field and make sure that our relationships are mutually beneficial. Not only are we asking them to amplify Coded Bias and to share the film with their networks and their constituencies, but we also highlight their work in our social media, on our website, and in our toolkits, so that we can answer that question at the end of the film that everyone asks, which is, What can I do?

In the making of this film, I became extraordinarily moved by this framework of data rights as a civil right — data rights as a human right. The Universal Declaration of Data Rights as Human Rights was actually inspired by Coded Bias being screened at the New York Human Rights Watch Film Festival. I realized that it was so powerful to frame data rights around the inherent dignity and value of every human being — that we are not just data, but that we are valuable, dignified human beings.

The “Universal Declaration of Data Rights As Human Rights” petition is available at

I realized that Europe had a data rights framework through the General Data Protection Regimen (GDPR), which actually is the first in the world to put data rights in a civil rights and human rights framework. Because we have no such laws in the United States, and there aren’t even enough legal scholars in this field, I reached out to UK data rights lawyers and I asked them to help me draft this document called the “Universal Declaration of Data Rights as Human Rights.”

I realized that it was so powerful to frame data rights around the inherent dignity and value of every human being — that we are not just data, but that we are valuable, dignified human beings.

Joy Buolamwini, the protagonist of my film, describes herself as a poet of code, and when you read the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” it almost reads like poetry. So, I had an idea of a very simple declaration that could provide a broad policy framework, part poetry, celebrating our human value and translating that into digital spaces. After drafting the Declaration, we went about the hard work of getting it ratified by our many organizational partners. We reached out to partners like Amnesty International, Color of Change, Fight for the Future, ACLU Massachusetts, Big Brother Watch UK, Algorithmic Justice League, Media Justice, Mijente, and more, whose work intersected with the valuable discussion of invasive surveillance. Today, we have gotten over 800 signatures. Now, we’re working in partnership with Color of Change toward a screening for the Black Congressional Caucus. We’re also working diligently to screen Coded Bias to the whole Democratic Party of Congress. We aim to deliver this Declaration to Capitol Hill as a way to give policy makers some basic framework of looking at data rights as civil rights and as human rights.

On May 17th, we launched the Declaration of Data Rights as Human Rights social media campaign. There are nine statements in the declaration which we’ll be using to highlight the important work of a different organization in the field. It works to both promote the film and the heroic organizations doing the real work, while also advocating for data rights as human rights. We’ve hosted specialized events with our partners to promote their campaigns and put their work in conversation with Coded Bias. I did an Instagram Live with Amnesty International to support their “Ban the Scan” campaign, an effort to ban facial recognition in New York. Through online engagement, we’re able to promote watching the film while also advocating for the heroic grassroots organizations pushing for systematic change.

Forming Partnerships and Building Coalitions

With an issue like algorithmic justice, there’s a big learning curve for the public. We sought to build educational resources that outline the basics of algorithmic justice and ways to advocate for change. We created an Activist Toolkit, facilitated by Independent Lens, with campaigns of our partner organizations and definitions of basic terms.

A promotional image from a screening and Q&A event for ‘Coded Bias.’

We’ve also been lucky to engage with the entire brilliant, badass cast of Coded Bias in panel discussions as a way to amplify their work. There are several authors and thought leaders in Coded Bias, so we engaged them in themed panel discussions that took place around our virtual theatrical release, the PBS release, and the Netflix release.

We always wanted to position Coded Bias as a tool for community organizing among all our partners, and to build mutuality in all of our relationships. We essentially said, “Here, take the film, take the activist toolkit, take the declaration, and use that to amplify the important work that you’re doing in the field, and let us know how we can support your efforts.”

Shalini Kantayya

Filmmaker Shalini Kantayya’s Coded Bias premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival to critical acclaim. Coded Bias was broadcast nationally on Emmy-award winning series Independent Lens and is streaming globally on Netflix. The film won a SIMA Award for Best Director, and has been nominated for a Critics’ Choice Award and a NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Documentary, among others.

Shalini’s debut feature Catching the Sun premiered at the LA Film Festival and was named a NY Times Critics’ Pick. Catching the Sun released globally on Netflix on Earth Day 2016 with Executive Producer Leonardo DiCaprio and was nominated for the Environmental Media Association Award for Best Documentary. She directed the season finale of the National Geographic television series Breakthrough, Executive Produced by Ron Howard, broadcast globally in June 2017. She has also directed for NOVA and YouTube Originals.

Shalini is a TED Fellow, a William J. Fulbright Scholar, and an Associate of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She is an alum of Firelight Media’s Documentary Lab and an Impact Campaign Fund grantee.

To learn more about Firelight Media’s Beyond Resilience series, please visit



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