Data visualization: a social commentary
The Science, Art and Trash project seeks to make a hidden aspect of reality visible: waste that is hard to convert to something useful as in the case of plastic disposables. The author has lived in the same neighborhood for over 20 years, picking up litter from the front yard almost every day. Streets are generally clean because almost all neighbors do the same. Yet the question of behavior change in terms of avoiding disposables has remained hidden in the act of putting litter away without knowing how much is really out there. Enter citizen and community science data collection and classification projects which afford knowledge gains, and can allow neighbors to see what others have found and, in doing so, appreciate the extent of the pollution. They not only make the subject of garbage and its relation to personal behavior visible, but also afford experiencing how data is important for decision making as part of collective effort. To amplify the visibility of the data in the community, it was compiled into an array and then digitally overexposed into a fragment of a historical postcard in a mosaic fashion. From a distance, the building landmarks in the postcard can be discerned. When close to the image, each piece of litter can be clearly recognized, inviting viewers to reflect not only on the individual pieces depicted, but on the amount of trash that makes the resolution of the image possible. Several local businesses and institutions near the village main street participated in a mini traveling exhibit where the image was hosted by each location two weeks at a time, either in a wall inside the location, or in a display window during the Summer and Fall of 2019.
Trash is something we tend to hide, to “put away,” as if a problem of objects found outside garbage bins. Such a mindset removes the origins and consequences of pollution from the immediate environment (Rogers, 2006), and in doing so creates an illusion that pollution has been solved by putting it away, even as products that pollute continue being manufactured and put in the market, and as if none of the materials being mass-discarded would have a negative effect in the environment. Plastic pollution in particular has exploded in the past decades but has remained invisible to American consumers because of waste management practices that have “put away” said waste into other continents. Since many places in Asia have stopped accepting plastics from the US and other western countries has disrupted the illusion that plastic is a viable sustainable material. But single use plastics remain invisible to people going to American restaurants, cafés and supermarkets where overpackaged or unnecessarily packaged products are the most common option. Furthermore, a culture of walking around with packaged food and drink may perhaps reassure a self image of hard work where there is barely time to sustain one’s own body. Assumptions of this kind can position polluting behavior as a much lesser issue than it really is. Lastly, the idea that plastics are readily recyclable has perhaps helped delay a response to pollution by assigning its responsibility to school children (i.e.: stopping efforts to educate adults by arguing that we must start by teaching kids how to recycle, even as most households do not have school age children to get the message).
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
I saw the Zooniverse citizen science project develop while at the Adler Planetarium, starting with Galaxy Zoo which asked people to help classify galaxy shapes online (Lintott at al., 2008), a feat for which computer vision was not suitable, and for which there are not enough scientists to deal with it quickly enough, yet any average person with a brief training can do. While the amount of data can be overwhelming, projects such as Zooniverse show that collectively, human action can be an effective way to address data to implement sophisticated knowledge, in this case astronomy related knowledge, when coordinated through simple tasks. Since then, Zooniverse has tackled other knowledge realms by articulating classifications in key aspects of the data being acquired.
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
Today literacy implies more than reading but also perceptually visualized data assessments of reality. Individuals and communities need agency towards data that affects their immediate, community and planetary environments, to help align personal and collective behavior to address issues that affect us all. Some environmental problems regarding litter arise when a person evaluates pollution from direct experience. People do not usually like to have trash in their yards, so the immediate solution is to pick it up and put it away, and as the trash increases, the easy explanation is to assume nobody else cleans up the litter. Mobile app data readily suggests that people not picking up the trash is not the problem. By showing where the litter was picked up on one hand reveals that the litter is there and that there is a lot of it, impervious to recycling efforts, and on the other hand, that litter is being picked up by many people and one is not alone in the world trying to deal with pollution in actionable ways. Picking up and classifying may then open up time to reflect and change personal behavior involving products and goods that become the trash being picked.
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.
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.
The hypothesis of the Science, Art and Trash project is that agency in data collection and classification affects not only personal but collective behavior. Computer graphics are the broader media that scales data to the human experience, showing us what surrounds us in the Universe as in the Galaxy Zoo project, and what surrounds us in our cities as when using the Litterati mobile app. Agency is exerted in both the classification and data collection processes and it is then up to anybody to determine where the data showcasing agency can be included. By presenting the data in unconventional venues like the mini traveling exhibit described here, said agency may then reveal that changes in personal behaviors can help modify the data when it allows us to see our collective consequences in shared spaces of agency.
Jordan, C. (2012). Running the numbers. In Alternative forms of knowing (in) mathematics (pp. 247–259). SensePublishers, Rotterdam.
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 https://www.facebook.com/sciartrash
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.