What do ethics have to do with data visualization? Over the years, researchers and lawyers have come up with some rules and best practices to guide the proper collection and use of data, with particular attention on human subject research. Questions related to the collection of data go to the heart of what constitutes ethical research methods: did the subjects give informed consent for how their personal data would be used? Does using, collecting, or publishing this data put anyone at risk? Is the data appropriately protected or anonymized? The rules continue to evolve, and are not without gray areas and open questions, and many universities have review processes to provide guidance and make sure the critical ethical questions are raised. In fact, these ethical questions and review processes are required under U.S. law for research institutions receiving federal funding.
In contrast, ethical discussion and guidelines around data visualization, that rambunctious cousin of data, are less established. On January 15, 2016 organizers at the Responsible Data Forum will host a workshop with artists, activists, academics, and practitioners on hand to draw out a set of recommendations on ethics in data visualization and to distill a set of best practices.
Running a handful of museum bots that post random images to Twitter, one quickly gets a sense of the eccentricities of of various collections and catalogings: the MoMA bot has surfaced many Louise Bourgeoise prints, the Victoria & Albert bot found an awful lot of snuff bottles, the Tate bot counts every page of Turner’s sketchbooks (even a few blank ones,) while the Cooper Hewitt bot has unearthed an large number of matchsafes. 4,267, in fact.
So when I saw this video interview with designer Irma Boom it gave me an idea. Irma Boom and her studio create books that flout convention: books with blank covers, books printed without ink, little books, and a book to last 500 years. They are rigorous, stylish, absurd, and inspiring. Her new catalog for the Cooper Hewitt showcases 1,300 carefully selected color illustrations across 912 pages. But that’s only so many matchsafes.
I decided to rectify this by generating an absurd catalog of my own. Using the Cooper Hewitt API, I pulled records for all matchsafes with images and produced a 4,390 page book purely devoted to the art: 4,101 pages of matchsafes accompanied by a 256 page index. Download the unofficial Cooper Hewitt matchsafe catalog as a 479Mb PDF. Please consider the environment before printing.
My Saturday morning has nothing on the several years invested by Irma Boom and the Cooper Hewitt team in their catalog design, but I’m pleased with the results. I’ve posted my source code of the layout and though written as a one-off, the mind wanders: why not an app where any search query could automatically generate a catalog PDF, perhaps available to print on demand? How about OpenCV to automatically generate random spreads of objects with visual similarities across different departments? Print period objects alongside text from WikiPedia? Programming print FTW!
This interview with radical historian Eric Foner is full of goodness. The focus is on Reconstruction and its interpretation, and this bit on the function of radicalism speaks clearly to the present:
“The abolitionists show you that a very small group of people can accomplish a lot by changing the discourse of the country. After the Civil War, everybody claimed to have been an abolitionist. But they weren’t!
There weren’t a whole lot of abolitionists before the war. There were a few beleaguered individuals scattered about, in upstate New York, for example. There were only a couple dozen abolitionists in New York City!
Now, there was a free black community, they were very militant, and you could say they were abolitionists, but I’m talking about the organized abolitionist movement. That was very small. Nonetheless, they managed to actually accomplish quite a bit. They pioneered the use of the media of that time — the steam press, the telegraph, the petitions, the traveling speakers — to change public discourse. If you want to learn something from the abolitionists, that’s what you learn. The first thing to do is intervene in public discourse.
And the Occupy movement — success, failure, gone, still around, whatever you want to think about it — it changed the public discourse. It put this question of the 1 percent and the 99 percent, inequality, on the national agenda. That doesn’t mean they’re going to do much about it in Washington, but it is now part of our consciousness, just as by 1840 the abolitionist movement put the issue of slavery on the agenda in a way it had not been. Now, it took twenty years for anything to happen, but I think that’s something to learn from them, how they managed to do that.
Here’s the point. I am a believer in the abolitionist concept — that the role of radicals is to stand outside of the political system. The abolitionists said, ‘I am not putting forward a plan for abolition, because if I put forward a plan, people are just going to be debating my plan. “Oh, it’s going to be two years, five years, seven years.” No: I’m putting forward the moral imperative of dealing with slavery.’ And if people are convinced of that, then politicians will come up with a plan to do it. That means politicians are eventually going to pick up those ideas and use them in other ways and turn them into political strategies.”
The story haunted me, and when the Harper’s Index repeated the statistic it prompted me to track down the source. It turns out the study cited uses data from the Centers for Disease Control, data that is easily accessible via the web. So I created a chart to show the change over time. The data is spiky but the overall trend is clear and horrifying.
Woman gets shot during a confrontation with police in East Pasadena http://t.co/IuuTrOwHZS— NBC Los Angeles (@NBCLA) July 11, 2015