Intriguing: Data Visualisation Goes Mainstream

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The Map Your Moves Challenge fascinates me. New York’s Public Radio station WNYC has devised a data visualisation challenge for their listeners. Curious about what makes people move from and to their community they polled stories from their listeners and collected them into a structured dataset and have released it into the wild. Now this is very cool…they want to take real stories and understand how these stories interact and how they can learn about their own community from them. Absolutely brilliant!

You can listen to the initial announcement of the project on their streaming player. OK..”Valerie, let’s talk a little about data visualisation…” I am very impressed. Telling a story in a different way is very exciting. I would admit that there is some conflation between data vis and infographics, but I am very, very impressed by the fact that this is coming from a real life curiosity to answer real questions. This is definitely the best advert for ‘doing’ data visualisation that I have found. Interestingly as well, they seem to have an evolving survey form that adapts to the information people.

They have realesed the dataset into the wild at via drop.io and have opened it up to anyone to play with the data and to find new ways to present the stories that it represents. They even have an ‘official’ Census Project Editor. Wow! What I find very cool is the wonderfully engaged way in which this public radio station is asking questions about how their community is evolving. I have been very impressed by the interest of the general population of Ireland whenever the National Archives releases another tranche of census info. The newspapers cover this as a major event and it becomes the fodder for discussion in the pub and over the dinner table. I was very surprised (but maybe I shouldn’t be) that there was this similar engagement globally. The census project site on the wnyc website touts that:

Every 10 years the country “counts heads” and uses those numbers to determine everything from election districts to funding levels. But the story of our neighborhoods, cities, and states is much deeper than what’s in the numbers. Join the Brian Lehrer Show as we make sure our listeners count, from in-depth coverage of the census process to interactive projects and all sorts of stories about who we are and how we live in 2010.

They are interrogating the statistics…counting the numbers…because they represent individuals and they are using technology to reach down and find the stories behind the numbers. I find this amazingly gratifying and have downloaded the great dataset they provided to try my own naive hand at finding some interesting ways to see the stories through the user contributed information.

There is an ironic timing to this discussion. Here I am being so very impressed at a community wanting to understand itself through the sharing of stories, when the Steven Harper government in Canada have decided that census should really be a voluntary sort of thing (kind of defeating the purpose eh?) and that the state has for too long being interested in the constituent members of the national community. They have, with the claimed agreement of Statistics Canada, decided to discontinue the use of the long form which was distributed to 20% of the Canadian population and sought to understand the demography and livelihood of the community. Although it was aggregated and kept anonymous (Stats Can has an unblemished record and zealously protects the privacy of Canadians), this seems to have had little bearing on the decision. The controversy has now resulted in the resignation of the Head of Statistics Canada, Munir Sheikh over the issue. National newspapers have suggested that the national animal be changed from the beaver to the ostrich and that “Opting to know less about ourselves is about as smart as flying without instruments” quips James Travers in the Toronto Star. Perhaps the decision is simply telling about the nature of decision-maming in the the Canadian government. Ontario has represented its deep disagreement with the decision and more importantly reminded the federal government that it does in fact base crtitical welfare, health and public service decisions it makes from knowing about the people it serves – and the crucial data provided by Statistics Canada. A rather telling comment on the Canadian political system. Let’s watch and see how this one plays out. In the meantime, I applaud communities wanting to know more about themselves as a means of improving the lives of those that call a place home.

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