Lament the breakdown of the written word all you want. The truth is, the proliferation of visual representations of data, like infographics, even at the expense of expansive writing, is a good thing, and it’s here to stay.
Hema Malini Waghray, director of the nonprofit Code for Princeton, which strives to make publicly available data from government agencies accessible to people who don’t speak governmentese, spends a lot of her time trying to convert absolutely tidal amounts of data into something people can actually use and understand.
Civic topics like affordable housing in Princeton or traffic pattern data can be intimidating, if only for the sheer volume of data found in reports on these topics. Intimidating or not, though, people want to know what the data is. It’s just a matter of ingesting it all in a palatable way.
So how to get the many messages across to people? Two words: art and technology.
True, the marriage of art and data is a seemingly unholy union. The two concepts don’t automatically go together any better than face tattoos and good judgment. But that’s the kind of thing Waghray is working so hard to correct. As it happens, art and data are not so mutually repellent as you might think, and each can bring out a lot in the other. And as far as muses go, artsy types could do worse than culling from an endless fount of information just begging to be made purposeful.
Waghray is the organizer of the first Art & Data Hackathon, an all-day STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) inspired event bringing together artists, coders, community members, designers, and curious citizens looking to wrangle data and visualize it.
The Hackathon, a joint venture between the West Windsor Arts Council and Code for Princeton, takes place Sunday, October 23, from 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the West Windsor Arts Council, 952 Alexander Road. The event is free to attend and participate in. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or search for Data & Art Hackathon on www.eventbrite.com.
Waghray was born, raised, and educated in Hyderabad, India. She had planned on being a teacher like her mother (her father was an income tax agent), but after getting her PhD in sociology she fell into the nonprofit arena instead. She came to the states when her husband, a technology management professional, took a job here. Waghray did do some teaching, at Sussex County Community College in 2006, but soon moved on to being a research assistant at Rutgers.
She was a grant administrator and advocate at Manavi, a women’s rights organization, in 2012 and 2013 and then became a UX (user experience) researcher at Marginalia, with Code for Princeton. The Hackathon was an idea born of the West Windsor Arts Council, Waghray says. The organization approached her, interested in finding ways to convey dense information in palatable and creative ways.
“We want to visually represent what’s going on with public data,” she says. “Put it on a canvas.” That’s any kind of canvas, from the actual to the figurative. Basically, “anything you want it to be.”
Waghray admits that not all sources of data lend themselves to visual representations. But Code for Princeton (and, hence, the Hackathon) are looking for those things that do. And those things can be incredibly unobvious.
Take a Twitter crawl. Artists, Waghray says, can tap into a particular Twitter hashtag, such as #breakingnews, and convert the information attached to these messages into something — anything — that represents the data in an engaging way. It could be a painting, a pie chart, a simple infographic, or an interactive computer simulation. “It’s open to the artist and the developer how they want to bring the [data] together,” she says.
The reason behind taking the creative approach to quite unsexy topics, Waghray says, is twofold. First, there’s the importance of art and creativity itself. Art, usually the first thing sacrificed in school budgets, is important for sound psychological development. Art, she says, “is an important part of the community’s growth.”
Second, art serves to free the minds of those doing self-described boring jobs like putting huge data sets together. And people who deal in raw data, like accountants, will often, self-deprecatingly, say they have dull jobs.
Well, they actually often do. They don’t get to be creative and figurative. They spend their days being literal and exact. And that’s not just accountants, obviously. It’s a lot of tech and IT people too.
“A lot of tech folks can’t wrap their heads around art and creativity,” Waghray says. “And they want to. They want to engage that.”
So while the Hackathon is, outwardly, about making creative people interpret raw data, it’s also about making literal people engage their right brains. It’s also about expanding the presentation of data beyond just the written word. Typically, large data sets like Census figures or Uniform Crime Reports get distilled by writers, who spend lots of creative capital looking for patterns in the information and figuring out ways to best describe it all.
The downside for the consumer, of course, is that however compelling a story might be, it can be long and confusing. There will always be a place for great storytelling, Waghray says, but visual and interactive interpretations go a long way towards clarifying and even expanding what words say. Or have difficulty saying.
Beyond the art side, the goal of the Hackathon is to help drag old thought into the present.
“A lot of government data and systems are so outdated,” Waghray says. “We need better technology and training. We need to take the government to the next level. Code for Princeton is, really, a huge process of community engagement.”
The Hackathon is open to artists, techies, and community members who want to know what they’re looking at and how they can help get the message across to their neighbors, Waghray says. It’s civic engagement at its most basic. It’s just being done in a wholly different way.