Whispers of Freedom

By: Reem Al-faiz, Jyotishka Biswas, Mike Drachkovitch, Argyro Nicolaou, and Felipe Lozano-Landinez

For our final project, we decided to tackle the thorny civic issues of empowerment and gender equality, with the focal point being the realities faced by the Saudi women community today (you can see our final presentation slides for class here). At the core of it was a survey-interview audio dataset in which Saudi women answered a set of questions related to the aforementioned civic issues. We presented the data set primarily through an art exhibit but also through digital platforms like a website and video. We conducted interviews at the exhibit to assess the impact of our work, and gained valuable feedback for future iterations. 

Our Audience for this project was Massachusetts School of Art and Design students and faculty. There currently is a serious conversation at MassArt about equality, between genders and with other communities, and we decided that this would be a good audience to interface with the Saudi women data set. The Goals were to give voice to Saudi women and to allow Mass Art students and faculty to engage in a conversation around gender equality. Our Call to Action was to ask MassArt students and faculty to share their voice and stand in solidarity with Saudi women; they could do this by recording their own message (whether via interview or post-it) in which they answered the question What is one thing missing in your life that you believe would empower you?”. This gesture of solidarity is a manifestation of an engaged audience for the issues that Saudi women voice, changing the dynamic of their current reality in which these voiced issues are not heard. While this Call to Action is considerably different than other calls to action that we have been exposed to in the course, we believe it is the appropriate one because of the sensitivity of the subject matter and the dynamics of an art exhibit-data sculpture combination. We didn’t want to have a call to action that in any way co-opted the voices of the women, implied that we or our audience “knows better”, or “imposed help”.  

The data set was collected via a survey of twenty-six (26) quantitative and qualitative questions related to the topic of empowerment, distributed via Twitter and Path. Over 500 answers were received in a few days, 75% of them from women. One of the questions, “What are you currently lacking that would make you more empowered?”, received a high volume of answers that talked about freedom, independency, more choices and confidence in their choices. The audio files (our final data set) that we ended up using represented a subset of these answers; they were the responses that were longer (not one word), not duplicates, and that were about the individual (e.g. we excluded responses like “Everyone lacks faith in God”). The recordings were originally in Arabic, and were subsequently translated for use in the project.

Our primary representation of the data set was an Arduino-powered art installation, in which bird-like electromechanical systems were suspended from a structure. We chose the symbol of the bird because of its legible connotations of freedom but also vulnerability. We used a non-human form as a vehicle for the women’s voices in order to universalize the exhibit’s message but also because visual representations of Saudi women are very marked images, which means that an audience might bring a range of biases to the exhibit if faced by such visual signs. The normal flapping of the wings was the invitation for passersby to become audience members. Once a “bird” was approached by the audience member, the flapping would slow and stop, creating a sense of conversation between the audience and the exhibit. The audio recordings, which were the translated responses to the survey question above, were on a continuous loop, creating the feeling that the voices are “always there, you just have to listen”. We purposefully chose the volume of the recordings to be low, in order to invite the audience to listen intently and have a more intimate experience.

The art exhibit was officially held on Monday, May 9th, 2016 in the Design Media Center building lower lobby area of the Massachusetts School of Art and Design campus. We had chirping ambient sound, natural light, and a window background to create a more realistic feel to the “bird” metaphor. The exhibit had two entry points, either a close-by wall where the project was described or the art installation itself.

In addition to our installation, we also created a website and a video (short version, longer version, and associated files) in order to create a digital counterpart to the physical experience of the project. We wanted to create a digital portal that would bring the subject matter out of the restrictions that the physical medium imposes (timeframe, location, etc.) and to a larger audience, especially the Saudi women who can’t physically access the exhibit but are very much a part of it. The article in the website puts the installation in context of the representation of Saudi women in Western media, while also incorporating the burgeoning Saudi art scene and demonstrating how some of the data from the survey might surprise a Western audience. The poem on the website is another literary vehicle for people to interact with the data set (it is made up of the same answers that were used for the “birds”). Finally, we included a video to create a digital version of the exhibit that is a bridge from the physical to the digital, capturing the complexity of the exhibit (sounds, movement, etc.) as completely as possible.

Our impact assessment for the project focused on the art installation itself (it was the primary representation of the data set). For the digital components (website and video) of the project, we didn’t focus on measuring their impact, though methods by which we would do this would range from as simple as number of views (and where the viewers are from, as it would be particularly interesting to see if there are viewers from Saudi Arabia) to gauging the quality of discussions that could arise from comments on those platforms (we are hosting the website on WordPress and the video on Vimeo).

Our audience for this project was Mass Art students and faculty. Our goals for this project were to give voice to Saudi women and to allow Mass Art students and faculty to engage in a conversation around gender equality. Because of our decision to create an art installation that embodies qualitative data, our method for assessing impact consisted of


(1) observing the level of engagement of the audience and

(2) conducting interviews regarding their experience.

Regarding the interaction between the audience and the exhibit, this is what we observed: at first, most people would stand a bit far from the birds until they realized there was audio coming out of them, and then they would come in close and listen. They would then go to the wall, read about the idea behind the project, and subsequently be interviewed and encouraged to answer a set of questions regarding their experience. We received a few mixed responses to the audio component. For example, one of our audience members commented in an interview: “These things talk the moment I leave”. This is representative of the type of conversation “feel” that we purposefully wanted to create: To truly hear these women, you have to have patience and listen intently.

The piece operates as much in the art space as it does in the space around empowerment. For this reason, we also wanted to assess how people responded to the topic of empowerment on a personal level, having literally heard some of the things that Saudi women are lacking that would make them more empowered. For this reason, we asked people to answer one of the questions that Saudi women were called to answer as part of the survey: “What are you currently lacking that would make you more empowered?” Around 15-20 people experienced the installation. We would like to highlight parts of the interviews we conducted:

Interviewee 1

On the experience and what it meant to them: “What struck me about the voices was that it was a different perspective from a different country. Hearing the problems and issues that other people have is very important for other people to hear. I think right now I have a lot of distractions in my life. I think definitely having more focus would help me start working on the things I really want to work on and finding the things that are important. That would give me more control of my life.”

Interviewee 2

On the other groups that face similar issues: Women here definitely work very hard to make a clear statement or make a name for themselves. There was a recent panel here that talked a lot about how a lot of those women had to work harder to make themselves feel as equals to men, and act as equals, as well. They have to be very careful about how they present themselves. I’m not sure if that’s true in Saudi Arabia, but if you’re going to make a giant change, you have to be careful about that giant step because people are going to have a big reaction, so either a slow transition or something that people can relate to is important. We saw that happen in the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movements — it happened over decades.”

Interviewee 3

On the experience: “I wanted to hear all the sounds that they [the birds] were making. It was interesting to hear these viewpoints and struggles. I wanted to hear them all. But sometimes one of them would talk while I was listening to another one. And it was frustrating. The birds seem to be speaking right at the moment I moved away from them.”

On whether he could think of other groups that faced similar issues as Saudi women: ‘Many groups struggle with similar issues to different extents. There are groups that require more respect, more equality more opportunity to accomplish what everyone feels they deserve. I’m sure there’s similar groups.”

Post-it Written Response: “A job.”

Interviewee 4

On the experience: “I like it especially in this weather, when you see the birds next to the glass’. On other groups that faced similar issues: ‘For me, because it was in English, I didn’t connect it just to Saudi women. It’s very hard to connect it only to women: for me, it was about everyone who is oppressed.”

Post-it Written Response: “A good book.”

We learned a huge amount from the interviews about the effectiveness of our installation, which was inherently complex because the artistic nature of the piece, form (aesthetics), function and call to action all affect the experience of the installation. One of the most important takeaways was the importance of designing the experience of the exhibit as a whole (i.e. How do we make sure people follow the route we want them to? What can we do to make the exhibit more “inviting”?). In addition, while we focused many of our efforts on the technological development of the “birds”, we received feedback that the art exhibit component of our project merited more focus on the aesthetic piece. Perhaps the weakest link in our exhibition was the Post-It question component. We think that having a tablet on which people could respond would have potentially been less intimidating. However, this would take away from the public nature of the exhibit, which is predicated on these answers, or voices, being visible to all.

Overall, the goal of giving Saudi women a voice was accomplished through the installation. All persons interviewed were interested in the audio clips playing from the “birds” and wanted to listen to them and learn more about the subject matter. We also believe that our goal  of engaging MassArt students and faculty on a discussion about gender equality and empowerment was accomplished, since audience members engaged with the exhibit and provided interview and Post-It responses after seeing the installation. That almost all of the interviewees were able to relate the Saudi women’s experience to their own lives or to a group in their own country or environment that might be in a similar situation was an indication of our exhibit’s success in pointing to the broader applications of the data set and installation.

For future iterations of this project, we would recommend on improving the material components of the “birds” in order to improve what can be done with regards to function, form, and aesthetics. We would also recommend having a different medium than Post-It notes via which to gather non-interview responses and incite discussion around this topic, whether it is through a digital platform like Medium or directly with the website. Finally, we would recommend putting more emphasis on the exhibit design as a whole, establishing a more specific audience flow and having more purposeful exhibit contact points and milestones throughout. We also think that it would be really powerful to incorporate the audio responses that people provide via interviews into its own “bird” for future exhibits, and grow the conversation past the Saudi Arabian women community to other communities that also want to engage on the topics of gender equality and empowerment.

All in all, we think that this project was an appropriate way to represent our data set. We provided a physical manifestation that led to intimate interactions with our targeted audience and developed discussions around the target topics. We also provided a digital manifestation that extends the reach of our project to a wider audience. Finally, we provided a medium for the Saudi women community to be heard, but didn’t impose any sort of help or hubris on them. We respected their reality, stood in solidarity with them, and started a previously unheard discussion.

Tough Choices: The Reality of Refugee Policy

By: Jyotishka Biswas, Kalki Seksaria, Mike Drachkovitch, and Felipe Lozano-Landinez

The data says that there are thousands of refugees entering the European Union every week. The current massive migration of refugees to the EU presents both a moral and resource-constraint issue to the countries receiving the influx. Decisions about how to balance the inherent trade-off are made by political leaders in all of these countries in a real-time, imperfect information environment. We want to tell this story to unpack the static-ness of the numbers and show the human decisions that underly a country’s response to try and best manage this challenge. The country that we decided to go with for this game prototype is Austria.

Our audience for this project is one placed within an educational setting, with the idea being that the participatory data game serves as a simulation of the types of decisions that a political leader would have to make during this crisis and will help students (who are immediately affected in some way by the EU refugee criss and would find themselves in similar tough situations in their future careers) better understand the complexities of the issue at hand for a government decision-maker. As an example group of this abstract decision, we have chosen University of Vienna Political Science Masters Students.

For this project, we imagined that we were the International Organization for Migration, and intergovernmental body focused on addressing migration issues throughout the world. With that lens, our goals for this project were to 1) Help students better understand the underlying complexities of the EU refugee crisis challenge in a more visceral, interactive manner.

Then, if our goal was to be successful, we had two calls to action for the students: 1) Push them towards advocating for better data collection capabilities by the European Union AND/OR 2)Encourage them to help the efforts of the IOM by working with the organization (internships, full-time, etc.).

Our data source for this game was the Refugee Arrivals along the Balkan Route data set from the UNHRC (link here). It presents information on number of refugees arriving every day to multiple countries from October 1st, 2015 through today.

The biggest aspect of the data, our data story, that we wanted to highlight was the inherent uncertainty and incredible difficulty inferencing anything about the future with past data (ex. What will be the number of refugees coming in next week based on what we know now?), and how that results in an incredibly complex decision-making challenge for a political leader.

Our choice of country meant that we segmented the information just for Austria. We focused on using the data from the first seven weeks (so from the first week of October 2015 through the third week of November 2015), and calculated a confidence interval of 95% for the # of incoming refugees for each of the weeks. This was meant to represent the data set that a political leader would be looking at when making a decision about how many refugees to plan for in the future (mean and uncertainty in the numbers over the last week). In the game, we then have a leader make a decision based off of that range (we constrained the decision set to five possible choices), and then matched the leader’s choice to the real # of refugees that came in the next week, which we know from the data set.

The setup of the game was that a decision’s consequences were determined by the difference between a leader’s decision (# of refugees to prepare for for next week) and the actual number of refugees that came in. The consequences manifest in the approval rating of the political leader, which is meant to show the political reality of making decisions that, while morally good, take away resources from your country/constituency. The player has two main objectives for the game: To help as many refugees as possible while also managing their approval rating.

We think this is an appropriate and effective way to tell the data story because it is reflective of a process that has a high amount of uncertainty inherently and that has to deal with the political realities of situations, no matter how well intended the decisions were. Essentially, the result is not fully in your control, and you just have to do your best. This creates both empathy with the political leader’s role and shows the complexity of an issue like the refugee crisis in a way that can only be really seen when being part of the decision-making process. In addition, the game has the intention on focusing on human lives and not equating them to capital explicitly, which humanizes the numbers and respects the lives of the people that the numbers represent.

At the end of the day, players come out with a better understanding of the issue and a more human view of numbers that they may have heard on the news and/or seen on TV due to their immersion into the decision-making process.

You can see our presentation and simulation at this link.

How will commuting in Boston improve by 2030?

By: Katie Marlowe, Phillip Graham, Gary Burnett, and Felipe Lozano-Landinez

The data say that Boston’s transportation system will be more and more stressed in the future. At the same time, it is clear that there are many issues that commuters face today. We wanted to tell this story because it highlights the efforts that the Go Boston 2030 initiative is undertaking to create a better transportation system for the City of Boston and also encourages additional community involvement in the endeavor.

Our audience for this project is two-fold. On one end, our posters target the every day Boston commuter who is affected by the transportation consistently. On the other side, our presentation is geared towards the Go Boston 2030 leadership team, in the sense that we undertook this project as if we were communication consultants hired by the committee to establish a public dialogue and the presentation is our final meeting with the committee to present our deliverables, the posters.

Our two main goals for the project, enacted via the posters, are: 1) To let Boston’s commuters know that their concerns are being taken into account and 2) To encourage Boston’s commuters to engage with the Go Boston 2030 initiative.

We used two main data sets for this project. The first one was the “Responses to the GoBoston2030 campaign” categorized qualitative data set from Catherine D’Ignazio (provided via Rahul Bhargava), and the second one consisted of quantitative data from the Goals and Targets report from the Go Boston 2030 initiative (link here).

We decided that the most appropriate way to tell the data story would be through a human perspective that made each poster relatable to the average commuter that was also augmented with a few numbers to corroborate any explicit and implicit claims and show the seriousness of the Go Boston 2030s efforts. With this in mind, we found that the most effective way to achieve our two goals would be via both qualitative and quantitative data.

For each poster, the qualitative data introduces the concerns of a commuter from the Winter 2015 survey, creating a human and emotive rather than an abstract and un-relatable dialogue. Then, numerical data is used to corroborate the concerns, showing that the Go Boston 2030 initiative has looked into this. After, we provide a qualitative response from the Go Boston 2030 initiative to the qualitative data previously posed, and then provide numerical backing to show that the committee has thought through the issue at hand deeply and is setting goals and measuring progress rigorously. At the bottom of  each poster, we have a link so that the commuter can access additional information.

The qualitative data set from Catherine D’Ignazio was used for the qualitative data to help frame the dialogue of each poster, while the Go Boston 2030 Goals and Targets report was used for the quantitative data and Go Boston 2030 responses.

These posters are representative of what would be a larger poster campaign that has location-targeting for commuters. Each poster would be placed in the location where it is most likely to be read by a commuter that can highly relate to its story.

For example, our Access poster would be placed in the Alewife and Malden T stations, to directly address the commuters that are positively affected by the planned change.

Efficient Commute

Similarly, we would place our Safety poster near bike “parking lots” in the city and Hubway stations.

Bike Lanes

And as a final example, we would place our Reliability poster in T and bus stations/stops throughout the city.

Late Train

Can We Afford To Integrate Refugees Into the US?

By: Kenny Friedman, Mike Drachkovitch, and Felipe Lozano-Landinez

The data say that it costs about $65,000, on average, to integrate a refugee into the United States over a period of five years. We want to tell this story because in today’s political environment, which is exhibiting significant anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric, it is important to understand what it would actually take to grant asylum to global citizens in need in 2016.

Our audience for our data sculpture is the American citizens that reside in the State of New Hampshire. We further characterize this audience as those whose primary concern in the refugee debate is the economic impact of taking in refugees on their state resources, and would also venture to say that this audience is of a more conservative political inclination. Our goal is to help them understand the economic viability of taking in refugees in New Hampshire and encourage them to support refugee in-take for this year.

In order to tell this story, we used three data sets:

The first data set is from a Buzzfeed article about US Refugee Data by Jeremy Singer-Vine, and can be found in raw format in Github. We used this data set to estimate the number of refugees that New Hampshire could expect to take in in the Year 2016 (457), taking into account Obama’s increase in the refugee quota (from 70,000 to 85,000), the percentage of the quota that the US has fulfilled over the last 10 years (82%), and the percentage of US admitted refugees that New Hampshire took in annually between 2005-2015 (0.65%). This was a clean data set recommended to us by Rahul Bhargava.

The second data set is an analysis from the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) regarding the cost of taking in a refugee over the first five years. We used this data set to estimate how much it would cost, on average, to integrate a refugee into the United States. We define “integrate” as having a refugee be resettled and established over a time span of five years in the US, to be consistent with the CIS analysis. For our “expected annual cost per single refugee integration” calculation, we used the aggregate five-year figure in the analysis and divided by 5 to get our number of $12,874.

Though we understand that CIS very much seems to have its biases against allowing immigration, we decided to use their data for two reasons: 1) Their analysis was the most thorough that we found online with regards to the economic cost of a refugee, and their methodology and data sources appear to of good objective merit, well thought out and fairly done. The bias seems to come from the way the calculations are used, not the calculations themselves. 2)  We realized that CIS’s potential bias would be of benefit to our story, because if it manifested in their calculations it would be in their interest to have the economic cost be as high as possible. Our story is about showing that this economic cost is not nearly as high as people think in the big picture; we are essentially using a “worst case” cost, and if our story can be impactful with it then it can only be stronger with a purportedly less biased estimate.

Our last data set is the 2016-2017 State of New Hampshire Budget, which provided us with the 2016 allocated state budget ($5.7 billion) information that we needed to appropriately size our data sculpture. This was taken directly from the Governor’s 2016-2017 Budget Bill.

We think our data sculpture is an appropriate and effective way to tell the data story because it re-frames large, abstract, and scary concepts of cost (spreadsheet numbers that are in the millions and billions) to more familiar conceptualizations of relative weight and relative volume. As such, comparisons can be made much more intuitively between how much it costs to integrate a refugee annually vs. the amount of money that is already in circulation for government purposes. The data is also very personal in the sense that it presents information specific to New Hampshire to citizens from New Hampshire. The experience of placing only a few Jelly Beans (each one represents $3M) from a bucket full of them (the state budget) and tipping the “balance of fate” for hundreds of refugees towards hope is very powerful, both because the audience has agency in this interactive display and also because it takes so little effort to make a huge impact.


Final Project Pic

Video Demonstration (to turn into a GIF, you can right-click and click on “Loop”):

Felipe’s Data Log for Saturday, 2/6/2016

As part of the CMS.631 Spring 2016 class, I decided to log all of the “data-generating” actions/activities that I did throughout the day (data-generating being defined as an activity that generates data that is being actively collected at that moment). Here is a log of what happened from the moment that I woke up until right now when I am about to go to sleep:

Format: Activity ; data sent ; entity that logs that data.

  1. Turned my iPhone’s “Do Not Disturb” feature off ; Data about my phone settings; Apple iPhone log.
  2. Sent a few texts with my iPhone ; Text-based message files ; Apple software and phone service provider.
  3. Signed into apps like GMail, Notability, Google Maps, etc ; User information like location and app-specific action data ; Application provider.
  4. Presented a ticket for a beer/wine tasting event ; User information such as name and ticket ID ; Tasting event manager who is verifying that only paying customers enter.
  5. Used my credit card to pay for lunch at a restaurant in Chinatown ; Personal financial information such as credit card # ; credit card payments processing company + restaurant.
  6. Used my credit card to add value to my T card ; Personal financial information such as credit card # ; MBTA.
  7. Used my T card to tap into Park Street metro stop ; Personal location + basic info ; MBTA.
  8. Used my MIT ID to get into MIT buildings ; Personal location + basic info ; MIT.
  9. Took a picture with my phone ; Picture file + associated meta-data ; iPhone log.
  10. Sent emails to various people ; Content-specific information ; Google.
  11. Sent a few texts with my iPhone ; Text-based message files ; Apple software and phone service provider.
  12. Modified a Facebook Event ; Content-specific information ; FaceBook.
  13. Communicated with parents via FaceTime ; Meta-information about video stream ; Apple/iPhone log.
  14. Used my credit card to pay for dinner at a restaurant in Kenmore Square ; Personal financial information such as credit card # ; credit card payments processing company + restaurant.
  15. Sent emails to various people ; Content-specific information ; Google.
  16. Sent a few texts with my iPhone ; Text-based message files ; Apple software and phone service provider.
  17. Modified a Facebook Event ; Content-specific information ; FaceBook. 

    It is very interesting to see on even just a somewhat superficial level how much data is created during normal day-to-day operations due to the technology-based and data-rich communication and interaction systems that we have today. It is also a bit scary, and brings to clear light the necessity for ethical use of the data and the importance of data privacy and protocols.

Social Progress Index – Global Data Representation Analysis

Hi Everyone,

For my first CMS.631 assignment, I have chosen a data graphic that is in line with this semester’s theme of Civic Data, which is defined as “Data about our world and how we experience it, being used with the goal of making it better for us all”. This data representation comes from the researchers at the Social Progress Imperative, whose aim is to provide substantive metrics to measure the overall “social progress” of each country in today’s world.

Link for Data Representation

Social Progress Index Data Representation
The data being shown in this information graphic is the aggregate “Social Progress Index Score”, which is made up of three core metrics: “Basic Human Needs”, “Foundations of Well Being”, and “Opportunity”, each with their own four sub-metrics which then have their own data components. This is a massive data endeavor, and many different types of standard metrics such as “Child Mortality Rate”, “School Enrollment”, and “Obesity Rates” are combined with less standard metrics such as “Freedom over life choices” and “Corruption” in order to come up with the aggregated scores. As such, the face-value data that is present is essentially a conglomeration of thousands of economic and social indicators, boiled down to a few key scores and partitioned at the country level.

I think there are multiple audiences for this type of data representation. In my opinion the main one is researchers and policy-makers, in the sense that the data tries to provide a brand new methodology and a massive amount of already finished work for measuring progress as a country (and can be used at different levels of granularity) in a different, more holistic way then today’s methods. I think another main audience is that of those organizations responsible for data collection, in that it provides a clear vision of what kind of analysis and (hopefully) impact can result from certain data sets that are collected. Finally, I think another important audience for this data representation is the general population; this is because all of this complicated data curation, analysis, and representation is boiled down to a few numbers per country with a focus on visual presentation of the information, the information is presented freely online, and the Social Progress Index has been the focus of several TED talks over the last few years.

I think the there are three main goals of this data presentation. The first is to get a conversation going among the general populace with regards to what social progress means, how it is measured, and why different countries have different levels of social progress. The second is to provide decision-makers who may not be that technical with a methodology upon which to have discussions with other decision-makers and also to drive forward policy and research initiatives. The third is to draw researchers into the methodology and analysis done such that they consider the Social Progress Index as an effective metric and measurement system for how the world is changing over time.

I think that the graphic is quite effective, because it allows for different levels of granularity (which serves multiple audiences),  has a strong visual focus (colors help differentiate between metrics and shades of color help to compare different countries), and minimizes the amount of numbers presented (instead uses relative positioning via a ranking and colors to help people orient themselves within the framework presented).

Overall, I found this graphic to be very thought-provoking and incredibly relevant to the world today and the our class’ theme, and had a lot of fun looking through it. I look forward to having many more of these experiences over the rest of this semester!