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Why Data Visualization

In September 2007, the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof traveled with Bill Gates to Africa to look at the work the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was doing to fight AIDS. In an e-mail to a Times graphics editor, Kristof recalls:

while setting the trip up, it emerged that his initial interest in giving pots of money to fight disease had arisen after he and melinda read a two-part series of articles i did on third world disease in January 1997. until then, their plan had been to give money mainly to get countries wired and full of computers.

bill and melinda recently reread those pieces, and said that it was the second piece in the series, about bad water and diarrhea killing millions of kids a year, that really got them thinking of public health. Great! I was really proud of this impact that my worldwide reporting and 3,500-word article had had. But then bill confessed that actually it wasn’t the article itself that had grabbed him so much – it was the graphic. It was just a two column, inside graphic, very simple, listing third world health problems and how many people they kill. but he remembered it after all those years and said that it was the single thing that got him redirected toward public health.

No graphic in human history has saved so many lives in africa and asia.

Kristof’s anecdote illustrates the sometimes unexpected power of data visualization: expressing quantitative information with visuals can lend urgency to messages and make stories more memorable.

Data visualization is the “visual representation of ‘data,’ defined as information which has been abstracted in some schematic form.” The use of data visualization can strengthen human rights work when data is involved, and it does something for the promotion of human rights that other methods don’t do. Combining data and visuals allows advocates to harness the power of both statistics and narrative. Data visualization can facilitate understanding and ultimately motivate action. And within human rights research, it can help investigators and researchers draw a bigger picture from individual human rights abuses by allowing them to identify patterns that may suggest the existence of abusive policies, unlawful orders, negligence, or other forms of culpable action or inaction by decision-makers. As human rights researchers and advocates look for new ways to understand the dynamics behind human rights violations, get their messages across, and persuade target audiences, they are also expanding the epistemology of advocacy-oriented human rights research. By broadening their evidence base and using new methods, human rights advocates come to know different things – and to know the same things differently.

The use of data visualization and other visual features for human rights communication and advocacy is a growing trend. A study by New York University’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice reviewing all Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reports published in 2006, 2010, and 2014 revealed an increase in the use of photographs, satellite imagery, maps, charts, and graphs. In some cases, data visuals augment existing research and communications methodologies; in other cases, they represent alternative and even novel tools and analytical methods for human rights NGOs.

While data visualization is a powerful tool for communication, the use of data and visualization holds exciting promise as a method of knowledge production. Human rights researchers and advocates are adding new methodologies to their toolbox, drawing on emerging technologies as well as established data analysis techniques to enhance and expand their research, communications, and advocacy.

Excerpt from “The Challenging Power of Data Visualization for Human Rights Advocacy” by John Emerson, Margaret L. Satterthwaite, and Anshul Vikram Pandey in New Technologies for Human Rights Law and Practice, forthcoming Cambridge University Press 2018.