Students for Urban Data Systems

at Carnegie Mellon University

Data Day 2016

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by Eric Darsow

Our digital age birthed another unusual occurrence: a tabling event devoted entirely and exclusively to the idea of data. Organizations of all sizes and girths carted in maps made in several centuries, charts of dazzling design, and slews of glimmering screens. A 3D printing robot was even spotted spewing layers of plastic into cute shapes. Amid this flurry of patterns and coefficients, the Students for Urban Data Systems (SUDSers) teamed up with nerds from CMU’s CREATE LAB to referee the pesky spar between the number crunchers and the story tellers.

The so-called “numbers and narrative” divide is turning out to be a chasm of our own making. While the process of regressing a spreadsheet full of figures obviously lacks a well-told story’s emotional pin-pricks, cryptic tabular outputs can, in fact, add dimensions of extent and intensity to an issue first illuminated by a personal narrative.

For example, how are we to make sense of, say, a sudden drop in high school test scores without talking to some teenagers about their experience bubbling in answers to mind-numbing test questions? The other direction works, too: few folks would rebuff a decision to augment an angry biker’s story about getting run off the road by a texting driver with a map showing ten years of bike crashes in Pittsburgh.

The SUDS + CREATE exhibit facilitated a safe crossing of this oft-feared number/narrative gap by displaying a few statistics about a central topic—such as transportation—and then inviting folks to write and physically connect a story or question to an otherwise lonely and contextless number.
data-day

One attendee affixed a short story about his personal experience with skyrocketing housing prices in his home city of Seoul. Pinned and ready for connections, another visitor complemented the narrative account with satellite images (pixel data) showing the Korean capital’s stunning vertical growth since the mid-1980s. Adding some sky shots of Austin, Texas’s metastasizing suburbanization over the same time period couched the sky-high rent story into a global context.

Even young people (perhaps less demoralized by hours of myopic method design meetings) sense intuitively the value of a well-told story alongside a chart or graph. One 9 year-old who visited our station looked over a bar graph depicting the average number of bicycle crashes by hour of the day. After a few minutes of thinking and talking aloud about the bars and axes, he used a marker and construction paper to ask all future board viewers: Why are there so many more bike crashes at midnight than 4:00 am? With an average bed time of 9:15 pm for children under ten in the United States, his wonder was about as genuine as it comes.

An enthusiastic transplant to Pittsburgh, Eric explores how the computerization of society impacts our geographic communities, social landscapes, and work identities. Eric is eagerly wrapping up his grad program in information systems at CMU and actively balances his screen-based life with wood carpentry and trying his hand at “installation art.” He serves as SUDS’s Assistant Director of Outreach, and interned at the CREATE Lab last summer.

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