Matthew — This was so very refreshing to read: genuine, honest, and striving.
I think this is an excellent example of “failing forward” and, also, the power of putting the work ahead of our own egos.
A thought about public, personal incarcertaion data: I think your instincts are right to want to personalize and visualize “the data” as PEOPLE, to illuminate the human side of this problem. Perhaps you can use the real data profiles but change the names and photos…? Photos of real people — not avatars —would be preferable with respect to sparking that real, human empathy, but of course a disclaimer would be necessary that the names and pictures have been changed to protect privacy. You could likely use Unsplash-type “do anything” photos legally, but that may still create some ethical grey areas, so maybe if your network or budget allows it, you could instead get people to volunteer to have their picture taken & used specifically for this project.
Just a thought.
Also, I have quite a bit of experience in strategic communications — I started off as a political speechwriter, and I spend most of my renevue-generating work these days as a consultant for corporations and nonprofits — and I think bringing data viz to criminal justice reform is really important. That to say, if you’re wanting or needing a knowledgable ear to bend about how best to communicate your work (or intent), or just to bounce ideas around, let me know. Happy to help.
Also — focus groups. When set up well and analyzed well, they can be invaluable.
Best of luck to you on your journey!