Data Visualization As an Act of Witnessing

The Undocumented Migration Project pop-up installation, “Hostile Terrain,” visualizes the humanitarian crisis on the United States’ southern border

Mary Aviles
Nightingale
Published in
6 min readMar 4, 2020

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Photo courtesy of the Undocumented Migration Project and Jason De Leon. Prototype from Franklin & Marshall exhibition (January 2019).

In late 2016, I read an article by Michael Brennan, principal of Detroit-based, nonprofit design firm Civilla, in the Harvard Business Review. I was haunted by this line:

“I cannot recollect, in 30 years of work, a single PowerPoint presentation I saw or gave that altered the course of anything.”

I am a qualitative researcher and strategist. It is my job to talk to people. Over the years, I’ve spoken with all types of people: school cafeteria workers to women who lost pregnancies late in their terms. When this exploration goes well, what happens is termed “developing empathy.” In other words, I get a tiny sense of what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes. The challenge is what happens next. I have to transmit that new understanding to the rest of the project team, most of whom have not been as “in the weeds” with the participants. We call this “socializing the research insights,” and no matter how integrated and cross-functional the project team, somewhere along the way, in order to achieve alignment or obtain buy-in, other people will need to be persuaded, but the farther away they are from the participant, the harder it is to pass that same degree of empathy along to them. Over the years, I have experimented with a variety of approaches, relying on video, audio, verbatim excerpts, photography, PowerPoint, and data visualization.

HT94 Prototype Exhibition at the Penn Museum — Photo credit: Maria Murad

Recently, I have encountered examples of physical visualization — data presented as an interactive exhibit — that inspire my client work. These installations make aspects of the intangible, tangible — something you can touch and experience in real life. In my work with nonprofits, I have become an advocate for data fluency, encouraging community-focused clients to exercise agency and control their own narratives by learning the language of data. To illustrate the potential for visualizing data to inspire empathy, consider the…

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Mary Aviles
Nightingale

I am a multi-sector human experience strategist, qualitative UX researcher, and sense maker. I am also the managing editor of Nightingale.