Thursday, June 9, 2016

In Pursuit of Museums' Data Visualization Work on Climate Change

During this past week I attended the EYEO Festival (pronounce Eye - oh) here in Minneapolis, ably hosted by The Walker Art Center.

The conference can generally be described as "where art, code, and activism collide". I went in search of ideas for encouraging more data visualization work in museums, particularly around climate change communication and calls to action.

I attended presentations on Tech-Driven Activism, examining interpersonal commitments with data (not at all what I thought I'd hear about), and Designing Consent into Conversational Spaces, among others. I was looking for was some hints that something like this, an animation of sea level rise in Newport, RI, is common. Nope.  

Of course, this was not really a museum crowd: more of a facebook/Google/Tableau crowd. There were lots of hoodies and sneakers, and black. My in-conference-app request of others to self-identify as museum geeks returned only six "yes" replies from about 500 potentials. Yet I wasn't discouraged: between sessions, four of the seven strangers I sat with professed to be museum-lovers and immediately understood how DataVis makes sense for communicating in museums and to museum audiences.

The talk was fast, and the jargon quite difficult to follow; but the excitement was infections. It was all strange to me, and overwhelming, but fascinating:  I learned that

  • DataVis is really information visualization (sometimes data bytes, sometimes data on images, sometimes data on maps)
  • it's really visualization of slices of history or slices of the present based on interpretation
  • that coders, too, worry about provenance (though they don't use the word): if the reason for a research question is detached from the data, the data is now open for misinterpretation
  • that coders research and run data for fun after their day jobs (like we visit museums)
  • that museums could use this approach to understanding visitor, donor, or member activities and perhaps motivations
  • and that climate change wasn't an expressed particular or widespread interest among these Millennials

I did meet the DataVis team from the Climate Policy Initiative who clearly get the value of DataVis in museums concerning climate change.

I met a young woman from BlueCadet in Philadelphia. The firm has had a number of museum clients, and offers DataVis work as part of its fleet of services, but no work yet for museums on climate information.

And I met a cool guy doing great archival research and digital mapping - I hope to connect him to great history museum - more on that when he's ready.

There's a great deal of untapped talent here for the museum field. The creative folks who code can be valuable co-creators if we give them the opportunity.

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