Data Visualization: A Tool for Social Change

As our ability to collect, store and analyze data about the world grows, so does the importance of being able to visualize that data in meaningful ways. It is a process of going from data, to information, to knowledge, to understanding and wisdom. The importance of data visualizations can be seen in its proliferation and increased usage in media as a new form of storytelling. This goes from simple graphs and charts all the way to complex visual constructs that convey a vast number of information in ways that are accessible and understandable.

Data visualizations have become an important part of the process of trying to understand the world and are being applied to a varied number of fields and aspects of life, from understanding the economic interactions of countries, to Star Treks character network. But, one field where it has one of the greatest value, especially when talking about social change, is in understanding and generating discussions around cities. As cities continue to grow so does the problems they face: from unprecedented demographic changes, to economic, environmental and social issues. The impact data visualizations can have on understanding how different city systems behave and how they can be changed to tackle these issues is enormous.

Visualizing Urban Data

Cities are one of the most complex human creations, a system composed of a vast number of different systems (from social to physical) interacting in ever more interconnected ways. The complexity inherent in the city makes it hard to understand how different processes play out, and the impacts different decisions and actions can have. It is here that I believe Visualization act as a key tool not only to gain further understanding of how the cities and societies work, but also to start meaningful debates about the problems they currently face today, engaging citizens in creating the types of cities they want.

Recently, as part of Habitat III side event “Habitat Village”, LlactaLAB — Sustainable Cities Research Group, presented a Project called “Live Infographics”, it was an interactive methodology that put citizens and experts opinions and ideas about the New Urban Agenda on a same (virtual) platform to help generate a ‘horizontal governance’. The different opinions where materialized with a dynamic map to visualize the generated data.

“Live Infographics in Habitat Village. (llactaLAB, 2016)

The visualization is a display of real-time data regarding question about citizens perceptions on Habitat III, and the issues that they think is more relevant to their city. The data is shown on a screen and horizontally on the ground using helium balloons that float above a map of Quito. Citiscope recently published an article explaining the project here.

“Live Infographics in Habitat Village. (llactaLAB, 2016)

One of the main criticism of big events like Habitat III is that they don’t take citizens opinions into account. In this sense the main goal of the project is to generate citizen-led data collection and to help governments build a better understanding of public sentiment, engaging people in the process.

Visualizing for Social Change

Seeing the project I can’t help but think that one of the most important contributions, its is ability to generate public debate around important issues.

In 1959 C. Wright Mills coined the term “Sociological Imagination” to explain how the awareness of how personal experience is embedded within a wider social context. This means understanding personal problems and struggles as part of a socio-political framework, and how this could enable public to become more engaged and involved with public issues.

A good Urban Data Visualization should be able to spark “Sociological Imagination”. Incite people to think about and debate on how their individual decisions, problems, struggles, and in general their daily lives, are part of a wider society, and how their decisions aggregate to produce specific outcomes, or how their opinions are part of wider public thought.

As cities grow and develop a number of different problems emerge and grow: inequality, segregation, loss of biodiversity and environmental quality, among others. These problems are complex, and finding the right solutions means bringing together policy makers, academics, designers, and citizens. Visualizations, if done right, can help start meaningful conversations between these different sectors and help tackle the problems that arise as the world becomes ever more urbanized.

The key aspect of these kinds of data visualizations its their ability of generating intellectual and emotional responses.

Although this is not new, there are still many questions of how we can use data visualization as a tool for social change: how do people respond to data visualizations? how can we improve data visualization as a communication tool to facilitate conversations ? What data and information should be visualized, and how are these visualizations framing the world? How can data visualization support better civic engagement, or democracy? I think these questions are critical in thinking about information design practice.

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