Q&A with Catherine D’Ignazio

MISC spoke with Catherine D’Ignazio, Assistant Professor of Data Visualization and Civic Media at Emerson College, about the possibilities for feminist data visualization; the power, pleasure, and limitations of visual data; data literacy; industries of accountability; and the future of inclusivity.

Last year, you wrote an article called “What would feminist data visualization look like?” Let’s talk about that piece and why you wrote it. The article begins with a strong quote from Donna Haraway’s “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” that critiques visual representation and the privileging of the eyes over the body.

Seeing the emerging discourse over the past ten years and all the hype around data, its visualization and tracking, and doing it in my everyday life, it has always struck me as a form that is particularly disembodied. This was the original impetus for writing the piece. What Haraway is calling feminist objectivity has to do with situated knowledge, which is produced by bodies, and these bodies see the world in very different ways based on their situated historical, cultural, and racial circumstances. When we see a visualization or a map (which I consider a type of visualization), it’s a view from nowhere. It’s the “god trick,” as Haraway says. From a communication standpoint, that’s part of its power and its pleasure. This sense of visual mastery over the landscape is not something to ignore, and perhaps there are ways to take a different or more ethical stance. The question that I’m really asking in the article is: How do we put bodies back into data visualization? Is that even possible? How can we think about what’s missing and, in some way, represent existence that is predicated on power? Is this asking too much of data visualization? I don’t know.

I think it’s a powerful challenge. Thinking about the history of maps and the embedded models of power that these representations produce, where does this lineage leave us? Given the provocation of the article, let’s talk about some of the opportunities to situate data, like including more robust metadata, referencing the material world behind it, questions of representation, etc. Are there tactics or areas of study, like gender studies and design research or feminist materialism, that address these issues?

The mention of the history of the map is interesting because, on the one hand, the age of the map precedes us, but using it as a tool of power wielded by elites to administrate and maintain control over space parallels, in many ways, what we are seeing today with data. For those not represented, their voices simply do not exist. Where the data lives, who administers, owns, has access, and can leverage the data, are all things that are not distributed equally. It is very asymmetrical, and it comes back to bodies.

Indigenous mapping and the data collection process itself being more participatory and community-driven is, therefore, very relevant. Typically driven by community needs, many participatory and indigenous mapping projects retain control over their data. And this is something we don’t often talk about.

Human Computer Interaction (HCI) is a field where technologists have been asking important questions to implement and operationalize feminist design principles such as making design more participatory and pluralist, looking at marginalized users, and looking at ecology and systems.

We can learn a lot from those spaces that are typically neglected.

I’m glad you mention HCI. I want to ask you about technology and tools for addressing data literacy, especially as it relates to your work with journalists and what is emerging in the field.

When I went back to MIT, I joined the the Center for Civic Media research group, which has a strong relationship to journalism media innovation. I did a lot of projects related to mapping the news, which topics are being covered, and which areas they were covering. I developed a relationship with journalists and journalism – an industry that was undergoing a lot of turmoil; one that undertakes such an amazing public mission for social justice in the world. In this context, they’ve started experimenting with different ways of capturing data and telling a story.

Journalism – like law, education, culture, and art – is an area that I’d call an “accountability industry.” These are fields that have a public mission and desire to hold power to account. These are critical public voices in conversations about politics and power, and so, I think we need to focus on building data literacy in these fields, specifically so that we can amplify the voices that need be part of the conversations at a larger scale.

I really like the term “accountability industry,” especially if we want education, art, design, or any of the fields you mentioned to be maintained and strengthened as such. Can we talk about a specific project that addresses these questions around data literacy and the “accountability industry?”

I’ve been working on a project for the past year called databasic.io. It’s a suite of three tools that were co-developed in collaboration with my colleague and friend Rahul Bhargava at MIT. There are a lot of great tools out there, but we noticed there were not many tools designed for learners, for introducing terminology, or the more process-oriented nature of data visualization – like cleaning or analysis, for example. So we thought we could build a suite of tools that were very specifically and narrowly defined. We included design principles, like it should be focused, it should be fun, etc. It’s very simple – and that’s the point. We want to introduce people to the basics of data. We’ve been doing a lot of workshops to provide an on-ramp for journalists, non-profits, community organizations, and some policy folks.

As you were speaking, I was thinking about Eyal Weizman’s work and the Forensic Architecture research agency at Goldsmiths, University of London. He literally takes media stories and pieces them together, not from one perspective, but dimensional, crowdsourced inputs. A multi-authored telling of truth that, for example, can stand up in court. I’m thinking about the open-source movement and also other tools for community, like art, that can be used to build one’s own tools for accountability from a dominant regime.

I participate in a number of open-source communities. I’m a member of the Public Lab for Open technology and Science. I run an ad hoc collective, The Institute for Infinitely Small Things. It’s almost 10 years old now, but a particular project that represents the type of work we tend to do, and that speaks to this idea of a multi-authored telling, began with a group of people who started doing experimental walks around the city. One of our members from Montenegro observed how Anglo-Saxon the names of the streets and public spaces were. So we looked at the history, who had been commemorated, and who had not. There are large Ethiopian and Brazilian communities, certain neighborhoods that are at least 35% Afro-American, and many other groups – all of which were not represented. So we invited members of the public to rename public spaces, and we set up a small library to do so. We collected over 300 renamings, individual conversations, very interesting back-stories, and we published a map with the names and stories that were submitted. We called it the City Formerly Known as Cambridge. For us, this was a model for the participatory process.

Yes, art and design that engages and experiments with critical in-world action is both aspirational and also very topical and practical.

I agree that art and design are aligning so much more – with design becoming more speculative, and art becoming more practical. There are still things that are permissible in art that simply don’t happen anywhere else. If I do events, they look like the “Make the Breast Pump not Suck” hackathon, or a walk in a public space with lectures along the way. These may look like hackathons or tours of public spaces, but they have been deeply inflected by my background as an artist.

Yes, these are the types of projects to look to that are expanding our definitions. What are some promising trends, shifts in perspective, or future projections you want to acknowledge or explore?

There are so many fields structuring large-scale conversations: citizen science, design solutioning, folks in crowd-powered journalism. I’m looking at these large-scale communities as models, as ways to work with data and do visualization. I think we are going to get better at leveraging crowdsourced methodologies and connecting them back to data and visualization.

ProPublica is working on a project, that’s still in progress, about the effects of Agent Orange after the war. They source impact stories from individuals and use this material for articles, but they also return to the communities with these stories. This is a really interesting back and forth that considers the community’s relationship with data. Another interesting initiative is Sarah Williams’ local lotto project. By analyzing the lottery in a new york neighborhood, the project studies data methods and probability in urban areas. It’s a holistic look that combines education, visualization, community participation, and intergenerational dialogue.

Then, hopefully, we bridge the gender gap to include more women and minorities within the technical fields. These are things that need to happen so that these tools are not tools of oppression, but tools that make authoring more accessible to everyone.

the author

Jamie Ferguson

Jamie Ferguson is a design and foresight strategist at Idea Couture.

  • HP

    Thank you for this conversation! As a qualitative researcher and a person interested in how people think about data and how people think data should used, this was a wonderful idea-sparking dialogue for me and hopefully for the students with whom I work.