Data visualization: a social commentary



Whereas planetary awareness comes not from direct experience but from data in many forms such as images, numbers, and temporal and spatial information, the need to explore venues for data to educate adults is apparent. Rather than endlessly starting with children, adults and the institutions and businesses run by them need to connect different aspects of reality to decrease pollution. The Science, Art and Trash project encourages adults to look deeper into personal behavior by inviting them to make the effort to capture litter beyond picking up, by putting in the time to classify it, and then looking at the data in local spaces. The project is as much of a social commentary on data visualization and scale, as it is on pollution.

In other words, this project seeks to connect community behavior to the visualization continuum between direct experience and collective data. Whereas humans generally make efforts to improve personal health through dietary and exercise routine changes, the changes necessary to deal with the health of our environment require us to connect with the data we have about human influences in the environment. One such data point is litter, particularly plastic disposables. Personal action can connect with data by making pollution visible through collecting and classifying it, looking at it from a community with agency, to then align institutional, business and consumer behaviors accordingly. This work is not a new program or a new use of a graphic tool, but a re-articulation of different applications in shared spaces to increase the effectiveness of current data and graphic visualization capabilities towards collective awareness and behavior change.

Citizen and community science

How is data related to our environment and human scale behaviors? This is where GPS-enabled apps such as Litterati (Typhina, 2015) are useful in identifying how human behaviors connect to planetary scales beyond that of direct human experience, yet retaining direct experiential agency over the data. Data visualization affords making invisible aspects of reality perceptual, and in this regard both Galaxy Zoo and Litterati address the process of data classification in interestingly different scales of agency, the former being mediated and looking outwards into space where scientists behind telescopes have captured large numbers of distant galaxies from the Universe, at a scale where human behavior is vastly removed from exerting influence, and the latter looking in front of the person pointing to litter in his or her or their immediate space, capturing the ongoing pollution of the planet where cumulative human behavior does exert significant influence. Community and citizen science visualization-enabled projects empower agency by aligning perception with action at bigger scales, whether action is knowledge or behavior driven.

Pollution data agency: a mini traveling exhibit

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Fig. 1. Map showing geotagged locations where garbage was collected.

Yet personal behavior is not enough. As a means to show the data to community stakeholders, that is, not just individuals, but institutions and business, I sought to expose the process of interacting with data and also reflecting on the spatial scales of human actions. I envisioned a traveling exhibit inside the community itself, a “mini traveling exhibit” encompassing public areas where the exhibit (announced and coordinated in social media and at local events) would spend two weeks at a time.

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Fig. 2. Mini traveling exhibit information panel.

The exhibit was Inspired by Chris Jordan’s “Running the Numbers” artwork (Jordan, 2012) which exposes pollution data in the form of image mosaics. I created a 3x3ft. ultra high resolution image array of litter with the roughly 6K images collected by 30+ neighbors who actively joined the project. A section of a historic postcard showcasing various village landmarks from over a half century ago was overlaid and digitally adjusted on top of the array so the landmarks can be clearly discerned from the distance while the individual litter pieces can be clearly seen up close, therefore acknowledging scientific visualization scale factors in immediate space. There are many ways in which design can manipulate the speed at which image recognition takes place according to distance, and for example, I did not include the whole postcard as to delay recognition, so people would come closer to the image to investigate. As in Jordan’s artwork, the large image welcomes attention that when close reveals an aspect of reality often skipped as unsavory, or beyond participatory or intellectual reach. Because the data is from the community, caused by behaviors exerted in the area on its present, and shows items purchased by individuals therein, the issue of agency in generating pollution is harder to bypass, imagined somewhere else, or caused by other people or other organizations or businesses.

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Fig. 3. Mosaic made from the garbage collected overlaid on section of a historical postcard.
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Fig. 4. Close up of a section of the mosaic image.
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Fig. 5. Panoramas showing the locations where the mosaic image was exhibited in the Summer of 2019: Forest Park Public Library, Village Hall, Brown Cow, Creativita, Schauer’s Hardware, Yearbook, Twisted Cookie, Exit Strategy, Everett Wealth Solutions and Small Batch Barbecue.
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Fig 6. Panorama of the bonus exhibit location where the mosaic was exhibited in early fall of 2019: Todd and Holland.



Lintott, C. J., Schawinski, K., Slosar, A., Land, K., Bamford, S., Thomas, D., … & Murray, P. (2008). Galaxy Zoo: morphologies derived from visual inspection of galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 389(3), 1179–1189.


Rogers, H. (2006). Gone tomorrow: The hidden life of garbage. The New Press.

Science, Art and Trash

Typhina, E. (2015, November). Designing eco-apps to engage adult learners. In 2015 International Conference on Interactive Mobile Communication Technologies and Learning (IMCL) (pp. 83–87). IEEE.


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SciViz in space

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