I’m going to write a relatively short post today. No one has ever said that brevity is my strong suit, but every once and a while I try.
Kristen and I had a really lovely conversation today about the potential beauty of data. Data is the bread and butter of science. When you conduct an experiment, you gather data and see if that data supports your hypothesis. Data can be analyzed in different ways to yield various insights, but the inarguable information should provide indications of correlation, anticorrelation, and the lack of any correlation at all. The end of a great experiment, for most researchers, is a bunch of data, and that data, while often only a bunch of numbers, can lead to new clarity on all matters of things.
But what often scares away potential scientists? Data. Numbers. Math. Complexity. I often ask my students in biology courses I teach why they chose to take my course. Every semester I’ve taught at my current institution, at least one student states that the life sciences seem to house the courses that have the least math and the courses that they won’t have to work with large data sets. I’m not sure the reason for this dislike of numbers, but it may spring from the idea that beauty, life, and truth is qualitative, not quantitative, and that any numeric evaluation of these concepts seems reductive and wrong. If each data point can be represented by a series of numeric values, the world seems cold and detached. But that’s not the only way to see this situation. Data shades in more details and character to any timepoint, individual, or outcome. Do you want to tell a good story? Collect more data.
One way to get a good story out of data sets is by creating a simulation. Simulations are usually computer programs where we can train said program using a data set. This means that within the data we have, we can figure out the odds and chances that certain outcomes happen if we see certain phenomenon. For instance, if someone were observing me, every time they saw me enter a room with bananas, granola bars, and cookies, data in the subsequent few seconds will see the number of cookies in the room fall at a very predictable rate. If we built some simulation with me wandering around Chicago, we can predict the rate at which different foods (cookies) will disappear.
One of my favorite stories from a few years ago came out of Aragonne National Labs outside of Chicago. Researchers there simulated a zombie apocalypse. The report was very tongue-in-cheek, but the information gained was still useful. Now, we don’t have data for a zombie apocalypse in order to build said model, but they used data from transmission of MRSA, an antibiotic resistant bacterial infection. Using that data, they learned how quickly a pandemic could cripple a city like Chicago (We’ve recently confirmed that). Was the data we gained from this simulation really meaningful for the current pandemic? Yes and no. This simulation was built using data from the spread of a bacterial disease, and that differed from the transmission rates and methods of our current pandemic, but there are a lot of interesting results, including that certain locations like the Cook County Jail could be a hub of disease transmission. As I’ve said, this simulation differed greatly from our current pandemic, but the data potentially was pointing us towards some uncomfortable truths.
Data is nothing to be scared of. Data is not something that detracts from a story, but something that can add to it. Data can be used to create impressive narratives and spooky tales, like that of a zombie filled Chicago. Look, we can prove this: Chicago is great. No zombies to be found:
That said, we do have a pandemic raging here. Please make sure you’re keeping your neighbors, friends, and family safe. Maintain social distance, wash your hands regularly and for 30 seconds with soap, keep wearing your masks, limit face-to-face encounters (Especially indoors).
Since my last blog post, I joined an XR for Impact incubator organized by StoriesXFuture and Andy generously helped me narrow my ideas for the incubator down to just one. A pattern I fall into is splintering ideas into endless iterations--all of which I am passionate about but for practical reasons, most projects end up on the cutting room floor. During our visit, I witnessed Andy’s creative problem solving skills in action and grew intrigued by his deep knowledge of Chicago’s history and ecosystems. New pathways for moving forward in our collaboration began to open!
By the second session of the incubator, I pivoted my idea. Not because I had arrived with a bad idea but rather because it was not the best fit for my growth. Instead I will embrace the challenge of creating an idea with greater potential for impact based on insights gained through the incubator’s workshops, such as Design for Impact led by Chicago designer George Aye of Greater Good Studio. Within the incubator community, I connected with a representative of Global Earth Observation Systems (GEO) and I am exploring ways to build a project that utilizes biodiversity and climate change data gathered from satellites, a less burdensome form of animal tracking than using physical trackers. The incubator runs through November 24 so I have some time to land my new idea.
Unlike the high-end production values of NatGeo (wildlife photography and immersive 360 video) and Disney productions, both for which research has proven their effectiveness at increasing empathy in the viewer, my productions are usually low budget with crudely-rendered cartoonish characters. They are not terribly successful at immersion but they are playful in how they use technology to frame the complexities of people’s relationships to land and animals and to engage audiences, socially. My productions have been difficult to fund yet are fun and memorable to engage with. A positive outcome of my work is that it provides comic relief from the intensity and emotional labor of processing climate change impacts and declining biodiversity and habitats. I’d like to transition from creating calls to action that require donations from Mom & Pop to finding support from foundations, investors and corporations as a way to scale projects to be more impactful. My projects are built upon scientific research, data and journalism yet the impact of my work has been difficult to measure. Impact registers internally, emotionally, and philosophically, if at all. This week, I am weighing how best to channel my creative efforts and instrumentalize new partnerships to increase the impact potential of my work.
As an artist coming of age during the shift from analog to digital (one-way communication to participatory media) and engaged with cable access television and the early Web - DIY, make-do, and amateurist approaches to media resonated with me. They promoted participation and accessibility while letting you in on the process of making. A similar potential attracts me to citizen science: the idea of empowering communities, opening up pathways to agency, and redistributing power for mutual benefit and wellness.