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You Are Not Your Data (and a project update)

Last week was the Fulbright-National Geographic Pre-departure Orientation in Washington, D.C. In addition to getting a chance to meet the brilliant 2015-2016 Fellows, we (the 2014-15 cohort) gave presentations to the public about our projects.  I structured most of my talk around one question: what can you learn from your data? The short answer, of course, is many things. The longer answer is more complex, and it’s really in that complicated area that this project I’ve been working on for the past almost-year has been situated.

The 2014-15 Fellows talking with Jeffrey Katz following our individual presentations. Photo credit: Ari Beser.
The 2014-15 Fellows talking with Jeffrey Katz following our individual presentations. Photo credit: Ari Beser.

But even though my talk was about what you can learn from your data, I find it really important to stress that while your data tells stories about you,  you are not your data. We are more than lines on maps and dots on charts, even though those might be the tools that we (I and many other data artists and visualizers) use to represent people.

But we shouldn’t confuse the signifier with the signified. Those of us who work with data are probably often guilty of doing this—it’s easy to forget that metrics are tied  to specific people.  For the past year, I’ve been working in-person with people whose digital data I’ve also been collecting. The people I’m working with are kind, generous, and intelligent, and there is so much more to them than just their data—if anything, their data is just a beginning.

One of the sample maps from the final website I'm creating.
One of the sample maps from the final website I’m creating.
My own personal map of how much data I'm generating through the many places within London that I've working on my laptop.
My own personal map of how much data I’m generating through the many places within London that I’ve working on my laptop.

In a couple weeks I’ll be launching an interactive website that’s a creative exploration of these people and their data, and the main goal of the website is to do what I’ve just said: communicate the three-dimensionality of people and their lives, even when all you can see is their data. We are all data machines, near-constant generators of steams of data, but there is more to the picture than just that.

I’m back in London now. Summer has finally arrived here, and there’s an air of abandon and celebration that accompanies the good weather. Despite the spirit freedom that permeates these cobbled streets, I still have a bit more work to do. I’m still meeting with my participants and working on finishing up this website. So I’ll still be here on the blog for a while more, writing about this project and the ideas that inform it.  That also means that I’m still open to having conversations about and around any of these topics, so feel free to reach out on Twitter or in the comments if you’ve got any thoughts. As always, thanks for reading.