Review of “Humanizing Data: Data, Humanities, and the City”

Photo by Julian Chambliss
Photo by Julian Chambliss

A variety of activists, community organizers, academics and data practitioners came together on Cooper Square this past weekend for a day-long symposium called “Humanizing Data: Data, Humanities, and the City.” Co-sponsored by the Urban Democracy Lab, NYU Gallatin, NYU Shanghai Center for Data Science and Analytics, Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU, and the Institute for Public Knowledge, the April 8 event explored how urban humanities can be both enhanced and complicated by innovative data-centric, digitized projects.

When introducing the symposium’s second panel, “Decolonizing Data,” UDL Associate Director Rebecca Amato perfectly characterized the question underscoring each of the day’s presentations: who would want their neighborhood, community, or life to be flattened into a single data set? Surely, data science is complex and profoundly useful, but can also fail to capture the very nuanced human experiences which drive policy decisions and render public spaces personal. Each panel grappled with this idea in different ways, highlighting projects which have utilized data to bolster rather than reduce the narratives composing particular community histories.

As such, the day kicked off with “Queering the Web,” a panel featuring Kimon Keramidas of NYU Draper, Jonathan Ned Katz of Outhistory.org, Elizabeth Heard of NYU Performance Studies, and Cindi Li, a NYU MA candidate in Social and Cultural Analysis. Together, they pondered how social norms are reinforced by digital media’s computational and design-based paradigms—analyzing how notions of gender and sexuality might subliminally construct the displays on our screens.

Their discussion was closely followed by “Decolonizing Data,” which engaged Heather Lee of NYU Shanghai, NYU Professor Jack Tchen, NYU graduate student Noah Fuller, and Gallatin students Jane Choe (BA ’18) and Molly Elizabeth Smith (BA ’18) in debate surrounding the power dynamics of data collection. They discussed the ways in which urban data science can reproduce knowledge and assumptions, namely those concerning notions of private and public—and even extending to those which determine price. In this context, Professor Tchen asked what a complete data set might represent about the data that it leaves unrepresented. Dr. Lee spoke about the elasticity of knowledge that citizens are open to, within this “world of fuzziness” we now live.

The panel discussion also centered on ways in which urban data can be used, along with digital media, to reconstruct very salient historical narratives. Tchen and Fuller, for instance, co-teach a Gallatin class in partnership with The Wayfinding Lab called “Indigenous Futures: Decolonizing NYC—Documenting the Lenape Trail.” The seminar acts as a collaborative research project that engages with Algonquian language scholars, digital mappers, and artists to explore the indigenous history of what we now call Broadway. It was incredibly interesting to hear them speak of the course, and to hear the students speak of their experiences taking it, as the project exemplifies ways in which NYU’s campus community can humanize data to its own scholarly advantage. Tchen also effectively “humanized” the meaning of data itself—when speaking of his research, he mentioned information-gathering processes surrounding “the data existing in dumpsters,” noting that how we think about “data” might need to shift before we ask foundational questions about its potential purpose and scope.

After lunch, this conversation was built upon by the day’s third panel, “Activist Geographies.” Each speaker presented a data-oriented project which targets questions of social justice, community space, and memory—illustrating the key point of the symposium, that effective data displays can revolutionize digital humanitarian scholarship. In more accessible terms, they can also be potent tools for activists and legal advocates. Grinnell College Professor Caleb Elfenbein, for example, presented his Mapping Islamophobia project, which traces instances of “anti-Muslim graffiti and offhand comments, vandalism, verbal and physical assault, employment and other forms of discrimination, anti-Muslim protests and public campaigns, local ordinances and state-level legislation targeting Muslim communities in some way, and political rhetoric at the local, state, and national level.” These obviously all concern very tangible and personal acts, none of which can truly be captured by a data point. But, mapping them together creates a kind of power in numbers, and even if this “power” does not deeply humanize each instance, it certainly demonstrates the magnitude of a humanitarian problem.

Erin McElroy of the San Francisco Tenants Union then presented her Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, an incredibly detailed database of dispossession and resistance in the California Bay Area. Hailing from Rollins College, Julian Chambliss showed a similar level of narrative drive in his Black Social World in Central Florida. Visiting Scholar Joshua Jelly-Schapiro then closed out the panel, illustrating the various capacities of mapping through presentation of his book, Nonstop Metropolis. Each speaker used digital resources to engage with specific social problems or stories at a broader level, constructing informational archives which not only provide concrete evidence of specific plights, but also those which can be used by humanities scholars comparatively, in research and in action.

After a series of workshops, a keynote by Gergely Baics of Barnard College and Leah Meisterlin of Columbia University closed off the evening. In all, the symposium provided various examples of research, community engagement, and digital activism that represent a crucial shift in the landscape of digital humanitarian study. It served to demonstrate that data, when harnessed and represented effectively, can make personal numbers which seem, at their barest, to be impersonal. The artful rendering of stories, problems, and solutions in digital form can elevate them from specificity and circumstance into archives that are not only “real” and “human,” but also lasting.