The election map in the New York Times was the subject of plenty of conversations in the data visualization and cartography world yesterday. As much as we here at CDA love a good conversation about visual representation (and apparently, we like to do it in rhyme), this map did raise a lot of questions and concerns. In a post for CityLab, Andrew Small writes: “America needs a voting map that actually looks like America.”
But as people tee up to argue and theorize about what the electoral map means for the country, I’m reminded of a recent point of wisdom my colleague Laura Bliss made recently—maps aren’t facts, they’re starting points.
Read Small’s full post for his thoughts on where we can start.
Designer, artist, and educator Kiersten Nash likes asking questions. Asking the right questions has changed a lot for her, and getting the people who engage with her work to ask questions, too, is a big part of why she does the work she does. The question she’s been asking lately is “How can we raise awareness about groundwater?” She and her colleagues in the design collective Public Works Collaborative have been attempting to answer that through their recently completed project Livestream.
Livestream, an interactive sound sculpture installed in Lexington, KY’s Jacobson Park, is a project designed to get people asking questions about water—where it’s coming from, what’s in it, how is it being monitored. It isn’t just an artwork, though, Livestream is designed to actively monitor the state’s groundwater using a custom designed toolkit. This first iteration of the project, featuring sounds composed by musician Ben Sollee, “translates data measuring each spring’s conductivity, temperature and flow into sound.” I spoke to Kiersten recently about Livestream, her design process, and how “[un]learning” can be the key to asking the right question.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
In the world before ours, before our texts, emails, 140-character thoughts, before we could have conversations with long-distance loves during a morning commute, in that world, communication was something different, something more challenging. I’d hesitate to call it more meaningful—there can be meaning in even the shortest hello if we want there to be—but there is something more, let’s call it more purposeful, in the act of communication in a pre-electronic world.
Researcher William Decker describes how reading pre-telecommunication letters “requires acts of imagination and empathy, but even casual attention to their commonplace expressions reveals a sense of space and time different from our own.” To sit, to write, to send your thoughts to someone and wait, patiently, while your letters finds its way, and to play this process out in reverse while you await response requires an amount of purpose that we may have lost in an instant-communication world. But there’s something more to Decker’s statement, the idea that reading this pre-electronic letter writing reveals something unknown to a modern reader. We get a glimpse of something new; words we may not have known, a voice we can’t imagine, a new way of thinking, a different way of seeing. We are experiencing their world through ours, and perhaps even seeing our world slightly differently.
In their new book, Dear Data(Princeton Architectural Press), designers Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec are seeing their worlds in new ways. The book, a collection of postcards the two sent to each other over the course of a year, explores the very mundane data of our lives: drinking (Week 18), complaints (Week 7), swearing (Week 37), or times we wish for privacy (Week 51), and beautifully visualizes them.
As the two write in the book’s introduction, “We would spend the week noticing and noting down our activities or thoughts, before translating this information into a hand-drawn visualization.” Through the process of examining their worlds in new ways, and noting emotions, sounds, and thoughts Lupi and Posavec, like the pre-telecommunication era Decker writes about, reveal a sense of space and time that we’d never considered. Through their weekly postcard exchange the two got to know each other, and themselves. The world around them was data to be collected, to be examined. They continue:
Besides finding data in the world around us, we are all creating data just by living: our purchases, our movements through the city, our explorations across the internet, all contribute to the “data trail” we leave in our wake as we move through life.
Lupi and Posavec’s explorations are alternatively funny (Posavec’s strategy for remembering the animals she spotted on her bike ride ending in a shouted “Give me my PHONE!”) and vulnerable (Lupi’s privacy week postcard, presented as a sort of erasure poem— the absence of words adding weight to the revealed ones), and at all times thoughtful. In an era where our personal data is constantly being amassed, studied, packaged, and sold back to us as ads, initiatives, or motivators there is something very powerful about taking it back. And not just taking it back in the way that wearable technology promises to quantify our lives, but taking it back in quiet, tactile, and let’s not forget, analog ways.
Dear Data is a nice reminder that even in this hyper-technological, ever-connected world, there is a beauty and simplicity in returning to a way of connecting that both roots us to our world and to one another.
Biome Arts started the way that many things do—by asking questions. What would happen if we combined this with that? What would happen if I bring my talents into your field? And in the case of Biome Arts, what would happen if we bring the visual, the digital, the sonic, and the sociopolitical into our art practices? What could we create then? The Biome Arts collective was founded in 2014 by Sally Bozzuto, Saito Group, and Chihao Yo and brings together writers, artists, designers, engineers, architects, and activists whose work speaks to the ways that art, technology, and social justice intersect.
The result of the collective’s collaborations has been two large-scale installations that live at the junction of technology, art, and activism. Their first project was Eco_Hack 2014, which included the structure The Forest Pavilion. This structure served as a multimedia gathering and performance space that also housed several interactive, immersive digital and data art installations.
This year, the team is back with Eco_Hack 2016. They are in the process of constructing Greenhouse Theater aboard the floating food-forest and art installation, Swale. This space, like The Forest Pavilion, will function as a central hub on the project and will also serve as the data center for the space collecting, visualizing, and projecting data gathered from the plants growing aboard.
I met with four of the members of the collective to talk about their upcoming project, data privacy, and how they’ve melded technology, activism, and art into their practices.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Data is changing our world. It’s changing the way we make sense of the world, the way we interact with one another, and the way we work. Arguably, there’s been no field as affected by the changes in data accessibility, management, and presentation as journalism. Where data sources used to be row upon row of file cabinets, they have now become row upon row of Excel spreadsheets, and what those spreadsheets have become is a story. Those data sources, and the all of the visual and interactive ways they’re presented, have become a way for people to engage with news and better understand its effect on their lives. News consumers have begun to expect dynamic storytelling that uses the rapidly growing amount of technology to breathe life into stories, and journalism is responding.
I spoke to Portland, Oregon-based journalist Lee Van der Voo, who also serves as the Managing Director of the non-profit journalism organization InvestigateWest about open data, journalism’s approaches to technology, and how data-driven journalism is helping us “get at deeper truths about the world.”
“New York has experienced at least a foot of sea-level rise since 1900, mostly due to expansion of warming ocean water. Certain conditions along New York’s coast make sea-level rise here somewhat higher than the global average.”
Scientists project that by 2100, our sea levels will be anywhere from 18 to 50 inches higher along the coastlines. It’s not so much a matter of if, but when and how much.
A recent CityLab article outlines the ways that data visualization is helping New York City respond to these changes. The rising sea levels are a particularity pressing issue here in the city, as noted in the article:
A 5-foot rise would affect nearly 1,500,000 people and 350 schools. [. . .] A new interactive visualization by Landscape Metrics illustrates exactly what that means for the city’s residents and its infrastructure.
Using data from data from the 2010 Census, the National Elevation Dataset, and the NYC Selected Facilities and Program Sites datasets, Landscape Metrics created interactive maps to visualize the impact of rising sea levels on New York City. The maps track the impact of the rising waters on people, schools, transportation, and waste treatment. Put simply, the higher the water, the higher the impact.
So what does this mean for the city? Is our infrastructure prepared for these changes? The city is a part of the 100 Resilient Cities initiative, which looks at how cities can respond to, not just disasters, but economics, transportation, and environmental issues. The initiative is looking at financial as well as design solutions for this problem. In the end, clear visualizations of the problem can help our government and our citizens realize that solutions need to be found. CityLab spoke to 100 Resilient Cities president Michael Berkowitz:
“[C]ities are piloting different solutions to different problems all the time.” The hope now is that these city-driven solutions are readily accepted and implemented in time.