Data & Design How-to's

Data, design and activism: Notes on what we've learned so far

Four years ago we started working with visualisations of evidence in advocacy. Each of our journeys in this field has led us to more questions than answers at times. Yet we are more excited than ever about what can be done with data and design to create social change. We thought it was time to look at what we know, and what we still don't know. And then turn it inside out.

The Data & Design How-to's will do just that. Published every few weeks on this site, they'll be full of observations and advice on data and design in activism. We'll try to show its inner workings, covering topics like how to get data, how to organise it, how to tell stories with data. We'll also look at the security and ethics of working with data, along with publishing how-tos about choosing media formats, visual styles and aesthetics.

Mentoring, curating and making: how we got here

We started off testing the waters to see if others were interested in this field with the release of Visualising Information for Advocacy, a short guide written in collaboration with the very talented John Emerson. Encouraged by the positive reaction to this guide we began to work more intensively to bring together design, data and activism.

We started tinkering with visualisation tools, collecting inspiring and beautiful examples from some of the world's most creative activists and listening to the needs of grassroots groups. We took a hard look at the kinds of data NGOs and researchers were working with, and why its potential was often suppressed. We followed and learned from the inspiring work of others from the fields of open data, data journalism, civic hacking, art and design. We then went further: implementing our own projects, mentoring others, testing out and honing our approach and figuring out how to teach people to realise their potential as information activists.

Mentoring: In 2009 we began mentoring two grassroots sex-worker collectives in India and Cambodia to help them pull together their own data about the mistreatment faced by sex-workers and to weave that data into information graphics to support the groups' advocacy needs. Together with our partners we have explored how marginalised communities lacking access to sophisticated information technology skills and tools can harness the campaigning opportunities within the data they are collecting.

Curating: In 2010 we started working with women's rights activists in the Arab region; aiming to inspire them with examples of information design, mapping, animation, culture-jamming about women's rights from around the world. We spent six months collating these examples on a blog called Visual Rights. We followed this up with a workshop for 45 women's rights advocates from across the Arab world; five went on to create their own visual campaigns.

Making: We've produced a range of data visualisations for print and screen with NGO partners. For example, we worked with Anti-Slavery International to create Products of Slavery an interactive website that visualises data about everyday products produced in different parts of the world under conditions of slavery. Most recently we worked with Bankwatch to visualise information about environmentally and socially harmful projects being financed, or in line for financing, by the European Union.

All this has added up. Over three years we helped almost 1000 activists – working on issues as diverse as corruption, domestic violence and migration – to use evidence more effectively in their campaigns. We challenged them to figure out how to move beyond traditional, wordy reports that no one really reads, to become creative in their presentation, to be flawless in their use of evidence and to be artful in their campaigning.

(click to enlarge)

Beavers vs Trees by Simon Schuldt. "A map of alder trees felled by beavers from a nearby lodge. Some people look at this as damage, but I like to point out that this is exactly what beavers are supposed to do. They're actually making land and making forest when they cut down fast growing trees like alders. It's only damage if one assigns more value to one natural object over another."

Re-posted, with thanks, from the Hand Drawn Maps Association.