The Artistry And Activism of Data Visualization

Brooklyn-based data artist and web developer Josh Begley came to campus for a talk on his work, which uses data to make visual modern America’s problems, from police violence to immigration to mass incarceration.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the work of Brooklyn-based data artist and web developer Josh Begley speaks volumes. His work uses data, from, say, the U.S. Census or Google Maps, to make visual the problems facing modern America, from police violence to immigration to mass incarceration. And as such, his digital art has been widely featured in NPR, The New York Times, Wired, The Atlantic, New York Magazine, and The Guardian.

On Dec. 6, Begley came to campus to engage students in questions of how data and digital interfaces can visually represent our history and the historical moment in which we live. To do so, his talk in Chase Auditorium, “Grids of Meaning: On Data & Landscape,” showcased several of his own works.

Begley began by citing Toni Morrison as a huge inspiration, referring to her as his “magnetic north.” He recalled that when someone asked her, at last spring’s Norton Lecture at Harvard, why she wrote literature, she said: “You know the formula. There’s data which becomes information which becomes knowledge. But the step after that is wisdom. None of the first three are sufficient.” And wisdom is an important guiding concept for Begley.

As a data artist, he uses information to express deeper, more significant messages about history through the traversal of landscapes—his art is always rooted in a particular space. “We live in a moment when data is fetishized,” he said, but, to him, data for data’s sake is a “stillborn form of knowledge production.”

Begley’s work and interests are both historically and politically rooted. He shared some early examples of data-graphic representation from W.E.B. DuBois’ charts and diagrams for the 1900 World Expo in Paris. These “diagramatics” charted and visualized information about black life and populations in Georgia and the rest of the United States. Utilizing a variety of creative forms and content, DuBois made visual the racial power dynamics and structures of dominance of his era.

One of Begley’s own first projects, Racebox, is a collection of snapshotted documents that map how racial categories on the U.S. Census have changed since 1790. A simple scrolling web page allows the user to scroll forward and backwards in time. Tracking the history of the database, he said, can lead one back to the very roots of white-settler colonialism, even with ledgers of human “stock” taken on slave ships.

Those slave ships were tantamount to mobile, sea-faring prisons, he said, and so that led him to his collaborations with the Prison Policy Initiative. While in a course on data representation at NYU, he helped write a processing script that would download and display over 5,000 Google Images of the prisons, jails, and detention centers across the country. This is a piece he calls Prison Map. Later, he collaborated with the PPI for a series of graphics showing each state’s incarceration rate in a global context, and how the states the bar the most people from the polls are likely the ones that choose the president.

Begley touched on intelligence data and covert operations in a section of his talk titled “Drone Geographies.” He introduced Metadata, an app he created to follow real-time reports of U.S. drone strikes overseas via texting notifications, which was initially rejected for its original name (Dronestream) and then was only available on Apple’s App Store for a short time. Then, for his finale, he screened Best of Luck With the Wall, his short film made from a compilation of over 200,000 satellite images of the U.S/Mexico border, before taking questions from the audience.

His talk was organized by Assistant Professor of Visual Studies Christina Knight and was sponsored by the Distinguished Visitors Program and the John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities.

-Jenny Ahn ’17

Photo by Lily Xu ’19.