I have thought about creating a census fan page many times. Looking at data all day makes one appreciate the history, scale, and effort of this massive public endeavor. Not only does the census provide official guidance to the formulation of public funding and policy, it has over the years also ritualistically structured our understanding of our environment. Since 1790, the census evolved not just to adapt to the massive increase in population(from under 4 million to 318 million today) and migration(from 5.1% urban to 81% in 2000), but its format has also changed to reflect our attitudes. In this 3 part(hopefully) assignment/makeup assignments, I focused on explaining and visualizing the American Community Survey(ACS), a newer data offering of the census that is a yearly long form survey for a 1% sample of the population.
Last summer, while interning at a newsroom, I built a twitter bot based on the ACS inspired by how nuanced and evocative the original collected format of the dataset is. Each tweet is a person’s data reconstituted into a mini bio. In the year since, people have retweeted when an entry is absurd or sad, but most often when an entry reminded them of themselves or someone they know. It quickly became clear that narratives are more digestible than data plotted on a map. However, I was at a loss on how to further this line of inquiry to include more data in bigger narratives.
Part of my research is to experiment with ways of making public data accessible so that individuals can make small incremental changes to improve their own environment. Many of these small daily decisions are driven by public data, but making the underlying data public is not always enough. While still plotting data on maps regularly, I started to think about narratives. Can algorithmically constructed narratives and narrative visualizations stand alone as long-form creative nonfiction?
There are so many wonderful public data projects that go the extra step out there. Socialexplorer does a great job of aggregating the data, so does actually ancestry.com. Projects from timeLab show many examples of how census data has been used for a variety of purposes, even entertainment. And just last week, the macroconnections group unveiled a beautiful and massive effort to expose public datasets with datausa.io that takes data all the way into a story presentation.
Constraints are blessings…
It’s fortunate that I work in such a time and environment but also very intimidating. What can I contribute to an already rich body of work where each endeavor normally requires many hours and even months of teamwork, not to mention the variety of skills involved? More selfishly, what can visual artists add to the conversation that is beyond simply dressing up the results? This series of 3 assignments is a start.
1. Explainer – the evolution of the census
Instead of focusing on how the population has changed, here is a visualization of how census questions have changed to reflect the attitudes and needs of the times. Unfortunately this was unfinished and only goes from 1790 to 1840 right now.
view closeups here – 1790_1840
2. Engagement – how special are you?
I have been procrastinating by spending a lot of time on guessing the correlation. I think that buzzfeed-type quizzes are one of the best data collection tools. Of course there is also this incredible NYT series. People who commented on the census bot often directly address tweets that describe themselves. This is an experiment to get people to learn something about the data by allowing them to place themselves in it.
This is also still very much in progress: http://jjjiia.github.io/censusquiz/
3. Data Story
To be continued …