Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Data are people

In a sobering visualization project from 2017, Reuters Graphics gives an idea of the scale of the Rohingya exodus from Myanmar to Bangladesh. Instead of having abstract shapes—bars, points, lines‚—represent people, each person is represented by a 3D figure. The result is breathtaking:

Enrico Bertini has called this type of visualization 'anthropographics'. In a 2017 article about them, after mentioning an interview with Paul Slovic on the notion of statistical numbing, and a classic piece by Jacob Harris, Enrico wondered whether anthropographics can elicit empathy. I won't spoil the results of his experiments, but they seem to be in line with the cautious skepticism I still spouse—and that I'm willing to abandon: I don't think that visualization alone can cause a feeling of empathy in the strict sense of that term; what it can—and should—do is to provoke thinking, concern, and compassion.

Coincidentally, this past weekend The New York Times published a story about a Rohingya teacher that describes the beginnings and impacts of the humanitarian crisis. Combined, the Reuters visualization and the NYT profile remind us that, in cases like this, each data point is a person.