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Respecting the data: Notes from Eyeo 2013

by: Amy Gahran |

Data can spur enormous creativity, and this year's Eyeo Festival (June 5-8, Minneapolis) offered some especially intriguing ideas, examples and questions about possibilities for using data. This event attracts noted artists, designers and coders from around the world. MIT graduate student Erhardt Graeff attended the event and offered a detailed rundown of highlights and takeaways.

This is high-level stuff, very philosophical and at times rather arcane. But if you want to explore the cutting edge of what you can do with data, and what that might mean to your community or the world, this is an annual event to watch.

In a pair of recent blog posts for MIT's Center for Civic Media, Graeff explored two themes that emerged from the festival: respecting the data and social justice.

Respecting data -- making sure the way you use data accurately represents that data and its purpose -- is an especially controversial but important topic. Some key points, according to Graeff:

  • Data isn't neutral. Laura Kurgan and Jen Lowe of Columbia University's Spatial Information Design Lab explained that data is neither neutral nor static. Rather, like subatomic particles, it comprises multiple, relevant dimensions. "You need to ask: What are the kinds of particles of data you are working with? What are the particle systems you are working with? And what kind of particle are you?"
  • Data doesn't explain itself. Reuters' Connected China project, which explores connections among connections China's powerful elite, began with raw data that was "incomprehensible at the start." Team members (developers, designers, journalists, China experts, and more) gained common background by reading a seminal book that explains power structures in China. Then they "created many intermediate visualizations and iterated over thresholds for the degrees of connection necessary to achieve the appropriate clarity and weightings for the patterns in the network. They had the basic data structure done in the first six weeks but it took many months to complete the final project, writing the entire HTML5 and JavaScript app from scratch."
  • Draw first. Information designer Giorgia Lupi said "before I think, I draw" -- which means she envisions the type of visual presentation she wants to achieve, and then works to make the data achieve that vision. Her results are beautiful, but this approach is controversial, since it could lead to skewing or otherwise "disrespecting" data. But information designer Stefanie Posavec counters such critiques by noting that data interpretation and representation is never completely objective or subjective. She prefers to work in a "hazy, in-between space" she calls "data illustration."

In summing up this theme and introducing his second post, Graeff notes: "My personal interest in respecting the data is born out of thinking about how data visualization can be used as a tool for public awareness, social justice, and social change. In such cases, the data needs to be carefully employed to make a point and make it near unassailable. What I've been learning of late is that perhaps less control is more when it comes to trying to make unassailable points. Art helps. But it still requires deep knowledge and strategy."

Amy Gahran

Amy Gahran is a journalist, editor, trainer, entrepreneur, strategist, and media consultant based in Boulder, Colorado. In addition to writing
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