Data & Design How-to's Note 1: Where is your evidence?
100s of photographs of Indian women's clothing on hangers...
Text messages recording street based violence...
A collection of plastic objects dug out from the carcass of an albatross chick...
... all have something in common.
They are all types of evidence that have become the basis of unusual and arresting visual advocacy campaigns. Evidence is threaded through the life of many successful advocacy campaigns and organisations; from the decisions activists make and the way they work, right through to how they communicate.
From interviewing survivors of war crimes, taking soil samples from polluted rivers, to tracking corruption through the leaked accounts of a State institution, a staggering amount of evidence is used in campaigning and advocacy.
Evidence differs from data and information. Evidence is information that establishes facts, or shows a truth about something. 'Data' are discrete pieces of information – dates, temperature units, names of places and so on – that can be considered as evidence of something. The word 'information' is broader and encompasses both evidence and data.
Whether swamped by it or starved of it, evidence is only as valuable as the ability to communicate it successfully. Activists can't just rely on slogans, unsupported assertions and pleas – they must make strong arguments and communicate in ways that use evidence. Evidence is the greatest asset changemakers have.
Leveraging evidence is the subject of Tactical Tech's Data & Design How-to's.
Changemakers, such as investigative journalists, campaigners and activists collect a lot of information – sometimes unknowingly. This information can be used to strategically influence policy and public debate, expose wrong doing and push for justice, monitor those with power, regulate public institutions and create compelling campaign materials. The effective use and presentation of information is central to this work, but is a real challenge. These Notes, based on our work as info-activists, are designed to help you use and present information more effectively.
This first note shows why evidence is an invaluable resource for activists and how it may be used in activism and advocacy. Over the coming months we will release 10 articles about finding and working with data, how you can use it to tell stories that move people to action, and how to design gripping visuals that engage audiences.
These articles will not be like a technical manual describing how a car works. They will be more like a road atlas; pointing out sights and hazards. Our aim is to share our insights into what we've found to be the most useful techniques and approaches and talk about some of the struggles and challenges we've encountered along the way.
We'll also highlight the work of inspiring activists and experts from the field whose work has informed our's. We hope to give you the opportunity to reflect on your own understanding of how information can be used for activism. We want to pose questions that you may not have encountered before and present challenging ideas about working with information design.
What is evidence?
Evidence is the outcome of observation, research and analysis. The way evidence is gathered is determined by the specific approach being taken to an issue. Activists make decisions about what to observe and why, how to gather information and data about an issue and how to draw conclusions about it. This doesn't happen in isolation or for the sake of knowledge alone. Eventually the evidence has to be used to push for change. This means its vital to consider the relevance and potential leverage for change that the evidence might have, before expending scarce resources getting it.
Evidence is not only text and numbers. Collections of information, images, visual arrangements of data can became the evidence that people need to relate to, comprehend and take action on an issue. Take a look at the photograph below:
(click to enlarge the image)
Twelve pairs of spectacles from victims of Buchenwald concentration camp. One of a series documenting the personal effects of victims of the Holocaust. Exhibited in The Legacy of Absence Gallery. Photograph by Naomi Tereza Salmon, 1995.
Activists have many opportunities to use diverse forms and types of evidence to tell a story, words, numbers and statistics are important, but they are not the only form of evidence. When using data to tell a story there are many different ways to engage a viewer using evidence. Working with data and evidence is complicated by the established rules and standards used by some institutions and disciplines.
A court, or human rights commission, for example, has rules that determine what evidence is. It also has processes and precedents for testing its strength and relevance to the issue at hand. In academia, scientific method and peer review probe the methods and conclusions of research to determine its value as knowledge. Institutions like these may have a settled form and style of passing on evidence dominated by text, images and numerical information.
Whilst they create standards of objectivity that evidence is held up to, they can also be inaccessible or of little use to many advocates. Sometimes the most precise, valid and perfectly collected data may have absolutely no relevance for how and where the activist is operating, what they are trying to say and to who.
Rights advocates and activists usually need information that they can use creatively in their work. They also need to think about the best way to get data that really is meaningful for the topic they are trying to cover and where the debate is. For example, a survey of street-based sexual harassment conducted in accordance with precise, academically rigorous methods, with a reliable and valid questionnaire, could result in a paper with a lot of statistics. But, such data on violence against women can be plagued with problems.
One such problem is that women in many societies are uncomfortable reporting harassment because being harassed is often associated with a loss of honour for the abused woman, and the tendency to 'blame the victim', even if they are assured of confidentiality. So there is always the chance that even a strong methodology may result in poor data.
There are other ways for activists to collect evidence.
A map of Cairo where women have documented the places that 'catcalls' were made at them. See Tactical Tech's case study of HarassMap, on our Visualising Women's Rights in the Arab World blog.
An approach like HarassMap however isn't without its difficulties. It relies on women having mobile phones they can use. But in many societies women have to share mobile phones, or have their mobile phone use monitored by spouses or other family.
If you asked another set of questions about harassment, you might still gather strong evidence which tells another story about street-based sexual harassment. Consider these other possible types of data that may shed a different light on the issue:
- All the streets or parts of a city that women will not walk down alone.
- The different tactics women employ to avoid drawing attention to themselves: talking into a mobile phone, constantly looking into or fiddling with their bags; wearing certain kinds of clothes.
- What women carry in their bags to defend themselves.
- The list of people a woman would not want to tell about being harassed.
- The first three people a woman would call if she has been harassed.
The answers to the questions listed above do not directly record when, where and how a woman was abused. They could however depict the reality of how women have to manage themselves in public and private spaces in ways that men may never ever think about. This information could be as important to collect, as information on instances of harassment and where they occur. They may be more abstract, but they may bring a much deeper understanding to street based violence than a simple map.
Image from the Blank Noise Project, see Tactical Tech's case study of the blank noise project here.
These are three completely different approaches to looking at evidence related to street based sexual harassment:
- Showing incidents on a map, in the case of HarassMap.
- Asking behavioural questions, as in the survey examples above.
- Photographs of clothing, in the case of the Blank Noise Project.
Deciding which approach to take depends on the audience you are talking to and what you are trying to say. This also highlights the importance of asking the right question. The best methodology, process and presentation in the world, won't change someones view of an issue if you are not asking the right question when looking for evidence and if you are not presenting evidence your audience really needs to see.
Once the evidence has been sourced, a different set of skills are needed to communicate it to supporters. Many advocacy groups adopt two default approaches to communicating evidence. On the one hand there is the “60-page report”, and on the other the “marketing campaign”. The first often contains too much information for anyone but a narrow set of specialists; the second, nearly none – perhaps a shocking statistic or image, a clever slogan and a request for donation. Both may be highly effective in some contexts, but not in all contexts all the time.
Between the two extremes - reports and billboards – there are opportunities to use evidence in information design in a layered and innovative way that can appeal to a wide range of potential allies. The HarrassMap and Blank Noise projects combine compelling evidence and effective communications: this is what we call evidence-based advocacy.
Evidence basics: how to get started
It is hard to know where to start when bringing evidence and visualisations into advocacy campaigns. It can be quite bewildering at first. In this section we suggest four points we have used to start planning campaigns. We think these are essential elements that can help get the architecture right, allowing an advocacy effort to take hold. It starts by looking at ways of working with information and points of natural resistance, moves on to basics like researching audiences, questions what is the right kind of evidence to gather and finally looks at how to position a campaign.
Data and design need context and in these How-to's we hope to start sharing how we orient ourselves when we start working with evidence.
1. How to organise evidence
Advocates regularly ask us for ideas about how to use technologies to get better organised. The underlying assumptions are that better organisation will make it easier to use evidence; that using technologies may help to seize opportunities more effectively.
We have found there are two key points here. The first is that most people are better organised than they think. Take a look at these photos below.
Left image: Packs of condoms from around the world organised on the wall of a sex workers drop-in centre near Calcutta, India, 2010 (Photograph by Tom Longley).
Right image: Post-it notes organising volunteer tasks in the last days of the campaign to elect Barack Obama in 2008 (Photograph by New Organising Institute (thanks Ethan Roeder))
These photos were taken in the offices of two highly effective organisations that couldn't be more different. The first is from a drop-in centre supporting the health and human rights of sex workers in a village outside Calcutta, India. The second was taken in one of the offices of the campaign to elect Barack Obama as President of the United States, in the days before the election. They're scrappy and a bit cryptic to outsiders.
But these approaches to organising are indications both of ways of thinking about information, and the interests and pressures people are working under. They are a chronicle of what makes most sense at the time; showing people's practical attempts to organise the information that is around them. Each captures a blend of different aims, assumptions and abilities that express how that group works right now. They both show organisations who are dedicated to and interested in the work they are doing, each using different techniques to stay on top of bits of information and their interrelations. Before thinking about technologies, we find it helps to look closely at what people can do and understand why they do it that way. Not looking for, and not grasping the importance of these reference points has been the graveyard of many a well intentioned attempt to 'get organised'. It's important to build off what is already there and flows naturally.
Leading on from this is our second point: the promises of technology often don't match up to the reality. Increasingly, working with large amounts of data involves technology in some way or another. In using technology to organise data and use it in the frame of evidence we have to learn to use new tools and techniques. In our work, we've noticed some strange effects in how people think about technologies:
Why could this be?
- Views about technologies can be distorted in different ways. Technology marketeers stoke excessive optimism in us about what it can do for us. Technologists themselves often explain technologies as solely things in themselves, making them harder to understand and deterring us from trying new things.
- Technologies aren't developed for activists and campaigners, but for commercial uses. Making them fit to our particular needs – such as the need for privacy and security of our data - can be challenging.
- We can be too cosy with technologies we know how to use and see little reason to change them. We often reach for 'old favourites' to help with any sort of data problem we're working on. We've observed that they can become the basis of our assumptions about how we work with data and information. We don't see the restrictions on us and the new opportunities that exist.
- Replacing technologies we use is hard. Learning new skills and keeping up with technology changes is time consuming.
- There is a tendency to think that technology will solve other problems that we have; technologies tend to amplify real-world problems, not reduce them. For example, when we helped coalitions of NGOs to use new communications technologies to help them coordinate, technologies haven't solved their leadership issues. Instead, they brought these problems into focus.
- New technologies should never be seen as holistic solutions, from the photograph above you can see that even the Obama campaign, with its extremely high-grade political organisers, data geeks and technologists used sticky notes to get a daily perspective on how to get people out to vote. The trick is to use the best format for the job at hand, with a mix of old and new technologies.
We need technology when we are working with information-heavy projects, and increasingly we need them to communicate with and share evidence with others. Being more aware of how we think about and relate to technology, and understanding our natural ways of working, can help us understand what it is possible to do with information.
2. Who to talk to and why
Creating change through advocacy is often about gaining the support of other people who can influence the course of events. However, communications can sometimes feel like text messaging a cat: talking to the wrong person, giving the wrong person the wrong information through the wrong channel, and then not getting an answer. Getting some insight into an audience is harder than simply hoping that they read the reports sent to them. When working through this problem we have been asking the following:
How to decide who to talk to, and how to talk to them?
Tactical mapping is often used in campaign planning: it can be a useful way to understand who is involved in an issue and help clarify who it is you are trying to communicate with and why. Seeing how the people or groups on a tactical map fit into an allies and adversaries map can help figure out whether they represent an obstacle or an asset. Using tactical mapping can also help you understand the sort of influence you can hope to have on an issue and set realistic expectations.
Looking at what capabilities key actors have, it is possible to try and find out how they exercise their influence. Finding how they are related and connected is also important: if a campaign can't directly reach its target, then sometimes it can get to others who are connected to them, or influence them. Its worth ask tough questions in order to come up with the right ideas: Why aren't they doing anything already? What may change their mind? What influences them and who do they listen to?
Too many campaigns are planned with the idea of reaching a general audience. This can be counter-productive; resulting in watered down communications that talk too generally to everyone without really changing the opinions or challenging the assumptions of anyone.
How to get through to an audience?
In order to decide what evidence to use and how to present it, put yourselves in the shoes of the audience. This involves figuring out how they like to receive information and why.
For example, what news does a policy-maker read, what does a policy-brief looks like, how is it structured, what sort of language is in it? If we get behind those concerns we can start to think about why this medium and product fits their needs. Is the information you are giving them going to save them time? Does it address the practical aspects of their work? Does it appeal to their political situation or bureaucratic environment? Is it balanced and well grounded?
We worked with a large international NGO on a project aimed at repositioning a long standing issue with policy makers.We worked together on an 'executive infographic' that summarised the whole story. While they were willing to experiment with the content, they wouldn't experiment with the format. They felt in order to be taken seriously by policy makers it was essential that they presented the information in an A4 booklet. Whether they were right or not is not important. The point is that they felt they knew their audience.This was important in order to help them maintain the right balance of experimenting with content and maintaining credibility.
3. How to use evidence to focus an issue
There are different sorts of evidence for all issues, and many ways of collecting it. Sometimes there are no resources to collect hard data, or the issue is impossible to research definitively (like national security issues, for example). Other approaches always exist but may need lateral thought and creative presentation.
For example, a body of compelling scientific research showing how the plastics we throw away are killing marine life in the Pacific Ocean. The research shows that ocean surface three times the size of Spain is covered with a thick layer of plastic waste. But would presenting that research directly to a non-scientific or policy-making audience really compel them to support calls for change?
How about the images above of a dead Laysan Albatross chick and its stomach contents? These two images were taken by two wildlife photographers who were documenting the wildlife on the Kure Atoll in the Hawaiian archipelago, one of the remotest islands in the Pacific Ocean. They came across this albatross chick who they nicknamed “Shed Bird”, since it lived near their equipment storage shed. Albatrosses are surface feeders and do not dive for their food as many other seabirds do. Instead, they survive on squid and flying fish eggs which are close to the surface. The area where the ocean currents of the Pacific converge, known as a gyre, has been their hunting ground for thousands of years. Only in the last fifty years has this area been choked with plastic debris. The birds mistake it for food, pick the plastic off the surface and regurgitate it into their chicks’ hungry mouths Shed Bird died because its stomach was full of plastic and it could no longer digest food.
Susan Middleton, one of the photographers, says about the issue of plastics in the ocean:
“The problem with the Pacific garbage patch is that I've never seen a picture of it that's compelling; when you go out there they say there's garbage floating over an area the size of the state of Texas. So you sort of imagine it, then you want to see the pictorial evidence of it, and when you're actually out there, it's not like you're knee deep in garbage. There's a lot of it slightly subsurface, so the pictures don't convey it. However, that photograph of 13.8 ounces of mostly plastic inside the stomach of one bird tells the story.”
The photographs were then picked up by Greenpeace and used in a campaign with the tagline “How to starve to death on a full stomach” (which is the image above). What else made Shed Bird a compelling story? Middleton believes that the it was the story of this one bird (the authorities did necropsies on 55 other chicks and found that they had died in similar ways) that evoked a strong response: “We resonate with the plight of someone half a world away that we've heard about in the news that is undergoing some kind of terrible suffering. That somehow emotes, or ignites more of a response in us than just statistics of hundreds of thousands of people suffering. Why is it that an individual resonates with us so much more strongly than hundreds of thousands? Because we don't really know them; then it becomes an abstraction, and its not real. It's not one person, or one bird. I think that makes a difference in how effectively things are communicated.”
The presentation of the stomach contents also raises troubling questions that it feels absurd to have to ask: how does 13.8 ounces of plastic fit into a baby bird? How does plastic find its way to a remote island in the Pacific hundreds of miles away from the nearest human settlement?
These images, and the story of the chick itself, have been used very successfully in advocacy towards the United States Government, contributing to stronger environmental protection of these areas of the Pacific Ocean. It's now the largest marine protected area in the world. Middleton reports that the head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality at the time, Jim Connaughton, said to her that, “Your book and your exhibition are the single most valuable tool that I have to persuade people on the Hill [meaning the Congress and the President] to say that this area needs to be protected.”
This one specific story, presenting just one slice of evidence, was more powerful in opening up a larger debate than a set of facts about how many birds die each year, or a strong slogan telling the audience what to think. The evidence in this case speaks for itself. We think this example shows how vital it is to be creative in thinking about what constitutes data and evidence, and of being disciplined in telling the right story, not necessarily the whole story.
4. How campaigns work
Left image: Genuine Chevron "We Agree" poster promoting Chevron's corporate social responsibility work.
Right image: Fake Chevron "We Agree" poster by environmental campaigners highlighting Chevron's corporate hypocrisy.
The image on the left is a poster created by Chevron, a multinational oil company, promoting its corporate social responsibility work. The one on the right is a parody of it created by an activist in Denver, Colorado, and submitted to a contest run by environmental campaigners at the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) and Amazon Watch (AW) along with “corporate pranksters” the Yes Men. The parody contains pictures of real children affected by pollution that resulted from oil drilling in Ecuador, where Chevron was recently ordered by a court to pay USD 8.6 Billion.
In this campaign RAN, AW, and the Yes Men launched a series of fake Chevron posters and mirror websites that looked very similar to Chevron's website and press advertisements. They did this before Chevron actually released their campaign, thus creating doubt in the minds of consumers and even the national media as to which was the real campaign. These posters are not simply design or aesthetic choices on the part of RAN and the Yes Men. They reflect a decision based on their understanding of the environment they are operating in and the necessity to do more than just present evidence. They felt that there is a lot of evidence already out there about Chevron's misconduct, what they needed to do was combine the presentation of evidence with a technique for highlighting the absurdity of the company’s 'greenwashing'.
RAN took a huge risk in undertaking such a directly confrontational campaign. This technique is not always necessary and can be counterproductive. In the case of RAN, however, this was the best route. There is little to no room for negotiation or mitigation with such a large and powerful concern. There is also little to no space for dialogue. On some issues, activists have to make hard choices and may at times decide for various tactical reasons to be directly confrontational and aggressive in their presentation of evidence.
This campaign works because of the nature of corporate communications. Not everyone has a target that is quite so easy to parody effectively. As David Taylor of RAN says :
“Branding is very important to oil companies. They can spend several hundred million dollars over two or three years just on advertising and on their brand image; they spend a lot money to brand themselves as ‘good' and not as the 'worst' of all companies. They seek to create doubt in the public mind that they are 'not as bad as' the next oil company, or that they compensate in some way.”
So RAN realised that the only thing they could do was to shame Big Oil companies. “You can't really create a set of facts about oil dumping or drilling or climate change to make them change their behaviour. You can only paint them as bad guys so that the public doesn't feel sympathetic to them or let them off the hook. Chevron Texaco has been found guilty and has been slapped with one of the largest financial liabilities for oil pollution ever. This means something, it has a huge impact in people's minds, but it doesn't mean necessarily that they have a desire to be a good corporate citizen. You want to create a public perception of them as such an evil actor till they deal with remediation and show that they have accountability.”
This campaign was particularly successful as they played in to the particular context they are working in, that is the US media environment. The US media is extremely sensitive to what oil companies put out in terms of corporate communications, and the challenge that comes from environmental protection groups in the US. Bizarrely enough, the campaign actually ended up 'spinning' the US media, itself notorious for its spin tactics. RAN was able to get out a fake press release just a couple of hours ahead of Chevron, and many US media outlets were actually unable to tell if they were looking at the real Chevron campaign or the fake one.
This campaign uses evidence in a completely different way than some of the other examples we have highlighted, blending evidence with carefully worked out tactics in order to elevate an issue's profile and gain public attention. Whilst the evidence in this campaign is not its leading asset, thinking about how to drive people to look hard at the evidence was in this case essential. When addressing long-standing issues with a lot of evidence already out there, marrying good evidence with effective tactics and paying equal attention can be necessary. This example is a reminder that we shouldn't assume that evidence alone can make the change.
Thinking about evidence in a campaigning context
These first steps are critical to get right when using evidence in the context of campaigning – whether it's how we approach the evidence we are working with, the technologies that we use or how we design and plan the stories we want to tell and how we are going to tell them.
This is perhaps what sets the use of evidence in activism apart from data journalism, from research studies and from one-off exposes. The way we plan and implement the use of evidence has to carefully balance the empirical facts with the outcomes we want: considering who we are talking to and why and thinking about what's possible.
In planning evidence based activism we have to ask some hard questions.
Here's a summary:
- How much are we prepared to 'reverse engineer' our own assumptions before jumping in at the deep end?
- How much can we expect new technologies to help or hinder our handling of data?
- How can we balance the way we work with the way we should work?
- Which are the important 'soft-parts' of the way we work that we can build on, and how important are our attitudes in shaping our approach?
- How much do we actually know about who we are talking to and what evidence will engage them?
- What's the evidence-based story that will change or challenge the audience's views and move them to action?
- How important is the evidence? Does it stand alone or is it just part of the equation?
- What position do we need to take in order to promote a dialogue? How much are we prepared to risk?
Carry on reading Data & Design How-to Note 2: Data basics, which looks at what we've learned about working with data and basic tech tools.
- Data & Design How-to's
- Data & Design How-to's Note 1: Where is your evidence?
- Data & Design How-to's Note 2: Data basics
- Data & Design How-to's Note 3: Opening open data
- Data & Design How-to's Note 4: Visualisation basics – the three 'gets'
- Data & Design How-to's Note 5: Get the idea
- Data & Design How-to's Note 6: Get the picture
- Data & Design How-to's Note 7: Get the details