Dear Data documents a data visualization project undertaken by two information designers: Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec. Over the course of one year, Giorgia (an Italian living in New York City) and Stefanie (an American living in London) tracked different aspects of their daily lives, looked for patterns in the data and designed imagery to depict the stories that their data revealed. They then drew these on postcards and mailed them to each other through the postal mail. They chose a different topic each week and called the project Dear Data. The postcards have since been added to the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and can be viewed here.
In the project, Lupi & Posavec explore innovative ways of visualizing data that provide a fuller, more human analysis. For instance, in week 48 they tracked their experience of overhearing the conversations of others. Rather than simply counting how many conversations they overheard, they captured contextual data as well. This included identifying characteristics of the speaker, the content of the conversations and where they were at the time of overhearing. They each then created a code of unique images to represent the different attributes of the data set and used these to make an artistic rendering of the data.
When I first opened the book, I found the pieces intriguing, but not immediately communicative. My first thought was, “Wow! What does it mean?” To understand the images, I had to become familiar with the legend and the experience felt a lot like learning a new language. It was like trying to read excerpts of text in image form while using the legend as my translation dictionary.
“We have been writing with [the language of] data. In our correspondence, we didn’t speak English or Italian – we spoke Data.” – (Lupi &Posavec, (2016), p. 52)
But, of course, they did speak English. It was the foundation of that shared language that enabled them to translate their unique creations for each other. And through this exchange they connected on a deeper level and formed a friendship that spanned the Atlantic Ocean.
I think the takeaway for us is not necessarily to replicate the project, but to be inspired to consider new ways of tracking and communicating data. Ways that portray the humanness of experience. One of my favorite images in the book is Posavec’s illustration of overheard conversations (p. 261). She depicts them as speech bubbles reaching into the postcard from the edges and one imagines she is somewhere in the empty middle hearing them. This is one of the more easily understandable images in the book because the forms she uses (speech bubbles) are immediately recognizable and are already understood as being connected to the subject matter (conversation). The recognizable images and qualitative data are pathways for the reader to connect with the piece.
In public libraries there’s a lot of data that we work with on a regular basis. We’re often gathering data about how the community interacts with the library and communicating that information to stakeholders, both internal and external. And how we go about communicating this data can make all the difference.
In his lecture on the Participatory Library Model, Dr. Stephens mentioned how data can be used to address concerns around library initiatives. To illustrate this point he showed an image of the Statistics Dashboard of the Traverse Area District Library, which shows data for the past 12 months:
This is helpful because it allows for the tracking of certain quantified data over time for each of the six branches in the system. However, while the dashboard presents this data in a clear and simple way, it presents only a small part of the vibrant landscape of how people have been interacting with the library over the past year. Taking a cue from Lupi & Posavec, what additional contextual data could be collected in these areas? For instance, in the upper right we can see that as of today, 745,511 items have been circulated in the past year. But in the middle, we see a green icon indicating that 177 of those items were puppets. Cool! What other kinds of items circulated? Yard tools? Wi-fi hotspots? And are there creative and engaging ways of visualizing these stats? This kind of data creates a more complete and human image of what library usage means. It means puppet shows, planting vegetables, and access to vital services. And, yes, of course literacy!
“The hyperlinked library is human. Communication, externally and internally, is in a human voice.” – Michael Stephens, The Hyperlinked Library
Michael Casey states clearly the reality that libraries face: “With limited resources, public libraries need to struggle for every dollar, and with limited tax revenue, funding agencies will part reluctantly with every dollar. It’s up to the library to be heard. . .” (Casey, 2011) Tracking meaningful data and visualizing it in a compelling way will enable patrons, decision makers and the wider community to more clearly understand the value of the library to the lives of real people.
Casey, M. (2011, October 20). Revisiting Participatory Service in Trying Times – A TTW Guest Post by Michael Casey. Taming The Web. https://tametheweb.com/2011/10/20/revisiting-participatory-service-in-trying-times-a-ttw-guest-post-by-michael-casey/
Lupi, G & Posavec, S. (2016). Dear Data. Hudson, New York: Princeton Architectural Press
Stephens, M. (2021). Participatory Service. [Panopto presentation]. Retrieved from https://287.hyperlib.sjsu.edu/module-4-participatory-service-transparency/