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Your Life, in Data

January 10, 2024 Fall 2023

Drawing Data By Hand was a 10-week class taught by Meghna Dholakia, with assistant teacher Lia Coleman (myself). In this course we 'sketched' data by hand as a way to engage with what concerns us, our communities, and the greater world. The students produced amazing work over the course of the ten weeks (which will be collated into a class publication!), along with countless insightful discussions that we had on data and its personal role in our lives.

In our very first class, we introduced students to the idea of “sketching” by hand with an exercise: take a piece of paper, and crumple it up. This really disarmed students from blank page paralysis, and any self-consciousness that they may have come with surrounding mark-making on a page. Then we had them warm up by having them draw 10 circles, then 10 triangles, then 10 circles forward, 10 circles backward, 10 big circles, 10 small circles, and finally a family of circles. I loved the immediacy of it— the fact that we had taken a break from our digital daily lives with a bit of embodied stretching and sketching on paper.

Breaking out pen and paper in our first class!

Throughout the ten weeks, we did numerous activities and assignments to visualize data with analog materials. We often used physical household materials in our data visualizations, such as sketching our friend networks on pen & paper, re-organizing our “junk drawer” in 4 different ways, and charting the assortment of condiments in our kitchens today versus in our childhood homes. It was so nice taking a moment to step away from the digital world and rummage through paperclips and weeks-old hot sauce bottles on my fridge door.

In this class, the data that we visualized was almost always personal. We visualized ephemera from our own lives, such as the images in our Downloads folder, or our memories of the different beds that we slept in from childhood to today, or the number of pedestrians on the street who, on the same October day in NYC, were wearing short sleeves, long sleeves, or rolled-up sleeves.

As a Community Water Quality Tester for the Billion Oyster Project, student Gina Tribotti collects weekly samples at the Dutch Kills section of Newtown Creek. This map shows the water quality of the Newtown Creek on September 28th, painted with water that she collected from that week's rainstorm.“How My Pantry Items Make Me Feel / How Often I Use Them” by student Connie Yu, illustrating different emotions associated with items in their pantry, as well as how frequently those items are used. They use the icons of silica packets (to indicate never used), condiment packets (often used), and bandaids (sometimes used).
A student work by Lee Beckwith, where they photographed bunches of mums (from an aerial view) planted on campus during a season of big events on campus. The prompt was: “What is evidence of the season/time of year in your home. What data provides evidence? Create a sketch from this data.”

We went in-depth uncovering the relationships at play and the stakeholders involved with data:

  • The ways in which data is organized / arranged really matters in telling a particular narrative— such as in Fred Wilson’s “Mining the Museums”, where he rearranged existing artifacts from the museum’s collection to confront the relation of history and race, by placing ornate silverware alongside a pair of metal slave shackles.
  • How different types of charts and graphs will emphasize different parts or relations in the data— such as in 1 dataset 100 visualizations.
  • What data is not shown (sometimes deliberately) can expose a lot about the author’s intentions— as illustrated in Mimi Onouha’s "The Library of Missing Datasets".
A diagram of data relations presented in class. Each role comes with different motivations.

On a hopeful note, we showed positive examples of data visualized in inspiring, artistic ways. One powerful example was Felix Gonzalez Torres’s “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA)”, where a pile of candy was weighed to be the same weight of his partner who had AIDS. Museum goers were invited to take a piece of candy from the pile on the floor, and the museum staff replenish the candy to keep the pile at an “ideal weight”. This piece showed me how poetic and powerful a data visualization could be— to very clearly see the pile of candy (the data tied to the weight of his partner) waste away over time.

Felix Gonzalez Torres’s “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA)”, where a pile of candy is tied to the weight of his partner who had AIDS.

Another set of inspiring examples were presented by guest lecturer Shirley Wu, who shared her art & data visualization practice with us. She is one of the co-authors of “Data Sketches”, along with Nadieh Brehmer, which shows 24 different data projects they did, including Shirley’s An Interactive Visualization of Every Line in Hamilton. She said that she put so much of herself into that project— it was the first time that “this silly little dataviz I made” felt real, since there was so much public feedback on it, and it was the first time she started to take herself seriously.

Shirley Wu’s “Untitled: We Still Land Home”, a piece visualizing Chinese immigration data to the US with drops of calligraphy ink on billowing fabric.

Another piece of Shirley’s that I found especially moving was her NYU ITP thesis project “Untitled: We Still Land Home”, where each drop of calligraphy ink represents one Chinese immigrant landing in America (the fabric). The piece is durational, displaying immigration data from 1850 to the present day. Shirley really emphasized that in many of her projects, she has leaned into the power of the small dataset— that the data for this piece was only 20-something rows.

Datasets don’t need to be big to be powerful. In the words of Carl Rogers, “What is most personal is most universal”. By archiving and drawing our own data, we can reclaim the idea of the “dataset” from being something massive, unapproachable, and owned by tech corporations, to something personal, loving, and created by hand.