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Data visualization is an art

| Thursday, April 29, 2021

Kerry Schneeman | The Observer

Last week, I had to read the final chapter of “Data Feminism,” a book by authors Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein. This entire work mainly explores the power behind data; not the power to be more efficient but rather the power to be more humane. It addresses a plethora of historical and modern socio-cultural issues, such as racism, sexism etc., from the perspective of data collection, refinement and visualization. It reveals through quite shocking and ironic stories and case studies how seemingly neutral data can inherently be tinted with bias. There is no doubt that in recent years, the volume, variety and velocity of available data have all grown exponentially. And as Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein stated, this hype around “big data” results in questionable projects where the data’s completeness, accuracy and possibility of bias all challenge the data’s credibility.

In the world of business analytics and data science, we are often wired to perceive data in a mechanistic way. We are taught that data is a series of coordinates that can be neatly plotted or fitted to a regression model. But these points, these numbers represent real people with real lives.

This concept is thoroughly highlighted in “Data Feminism” and has been heavily discussed in my “Elements of Computing II” class. Relational databases should tell a human centered story and draw human centered conclusions from the data. This class has helped me see the major I chose, business analytics, in a whole new light. Designing and manipulating relational databases is in fact an art; it is an art that should be used to make data more humane. This art should be used to depict the complexity of our communities because as Giorgia Lupi, creator of the Data Humanism Manifesto,  says “data is not numbers; data is people.”

I am a great fan of Lupi’s work and by the end of this column, I bet you will be too. Giorgia Lupi calls herself “a data visualization designer and artist.“ I don’t think many of us would put artist and data in the same sentence and yet here is Lupi not only forging the link between the two worlds but also actively and creatively living by it. I was particularly fascinated by her project entitled “Bruises—The Data We Don’t See.” She essentially created this visual to document the side effects of the TPI illness a beloved one of hers suffered from. Normally, bruises and other medical side effects are automatically charted and graphed, stamped with medical and technical terms. But Lupi’s end goal was different: “Through my work, I thought, I could try to help her process and communicate her emotions: the feelings any of us experience when coping with our own illness, or that of a beloved one.” She documents the entire process on here website and the end result is stunning: at first glance, the piece looks like a painting. Every part of the figure radiates so much depth, elegance and power. She portrays the side effects with petals that vary in shape, size and color to symbolize different data classifications. I have honestly been struggling to describe this piece: no sentence structure or word choice seem to adequately capture the power behind the piece.

I will leave you with this saying by Lupi, “Data are never only what we see at a first glance, they are never only the hardcore numbers. They always come with an often-overlooked set of more fluid and nuanced information that therefore requires new forms of representations in order to be captured fully … To make data faithfully representative of our human nature , we need to start designing ways to include empathy, imperfection, and human qualities in how we collect, process, interpret, and display them.”

Krista Akiki is a sophomore at Notre Dame majoring in Business Analytics. Coming from Beirut, Lebanon, she always enjoys trying out new things and is an avid travel-lover. She hopes to take her readers on her journey as she navigates college life and stands up for the issues she believes. She can be reached at [email protected] or via Twitter @kristalourdesakiki.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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