Mapping Data and People

Create and share a big-picture view of how data flows through a system

This is part of a series to provoke dialogue and provide concrete ways to help teams ethically build and design intelligent systems. Read our introduction.

All data is shaped by humans; we decide what to collect about the world around us, how to capture it, and how to use it. Knowing explicitly how data originates, where it goes, who has touched or transformed it, and how it has been transformed are invaluable ways of surfacing ambiguities, redundancies, inconsistencies, biases, gaps, and other opportunities for design. Infusing this investigation with an understanding of the human experience of the data ecosystem helps prioritize where to go next.

Mapping the flow of data and how it intersects with people is a key step in understanding a data ecosystem. This can be a useful tool since it’s rare that any one person or department will be able to see the whole picture. Crucially, it also helps uncover key pieces of the picture that can lead to unexpected (and often vital) insights. Data mapping becomes an essential ethical exercise, however, when we examine how people affect and are affected by the system. Capturing the actual data flow (including the workarounds, hacks, and unintended consequences) rather than the imagined or aspirational flow helps design teams refine their mental models faster than they could if they were bogged down in mining databases and spreadsheets.

Activities to try

_Draw a large-scale journey or system map of what you already know about the part of the system you are interested in (ideally on a whiteboard, since it will probably change over time). Include the big players you’re aware of and leave plenty of whitespace. Use Post-Its to layer on details such as people/roles, tools, events, and transformations. Then identify knowledge gaps and consider how you might fill them in. For example, you might ask more probing questions of users or choose to observe specific aspects of the system more closely. Alternatively, you might act out or role-play how the system works, and ask experts to fill in the parts that are missing.

_Recruit several participants who have roles in the system — including engineers, users, administrators, members of the public, and beneficiaries. Ask each person to walk you through their role and how they perform it. Pay close attention to the tools and information they use and whether that information is systematically captured. Map these activities, tools, and information to a timeline so you can see the overlapping contributions of multiple stakeholders at a glance. Assemble what you learn into a multi-layered picture of the system as a whole.

Project vignette

A client wanted to improve the customer-service experience in its call center. The design team conducted dozens of interviews with stakeholders, customers, and employees, and heard that customer service was simply not very good. While observing calls in the call center, team members noticed customers had to repeat information often and agents had trouble finding the information they should have had easy access to, both of which soured the experience. The team mapped all the people and data in the system, charting the flow of information between customers and agents. Seeing pain points and bottlenecks — and better understanding the tools, people, and information that powered the system — helped the team design a new experience in which agents had easy and intuitive access to information and customers had to repeat themselves much less often.

Explore the other posts in this series: