Grad student combines data and art to teach teens

by Jackson Ellison / Beacon Correspondent • April 6, 2017

Earlier this spring in the Dudley Branch of Boston Public Library, high school students were tasked with researching their favorite places from their communities and presenting the information clearly in a digital timeline. 

This seemingly simple task was part of a larger initiative called DIY Data Art, designed to teach them how to collect and communicate data effectively.

The project is the brainchild of Samantha Viotty, a graduate student currently enrolled in the Civic Media, Art & Practice (CMAP) program offered by the Emerson Engagement Lab.  

The Engagement Lab is a place known for using art and design to create change within a community. Students in the 12-month graduate program must come up with and produce a thesis project that is centered on innovation. 

Viotty’s project is intended to change the way people think of data as a complex set of numbers that only a few people comprehend, and to show that data can be easier to understand.

 “I thought of data as really math- and science-based and felt like something really intangible,” Viotty said. “And then I kind of saw this way of visualizing data and using it to create art.”

 DIY Data Art allows the teens to be self-sufficient. It consists of various online activities that each take around 15 minutes to complete. 

The location research project was one of these activities. In the end, the teens created a timeline that showed data from each location represented both chronologically and visually.

 In order to help introduce teens to data collection, Viotty has chosen to involve data from subjects that most teenagers would be interested in, like lyrics from Kendrick Lamar and Drake. 

Viotty wants to show teens that data isn’t just numbers and that the ability to collect and display information effectively is an essential skill to have in nearly all career paths. 

Viotty said she has always enjoyed teaching teens because they are mature enough to have intellectual conversations but young enough to still be impressionable. Before coming to the CMAP program, she worked as a college counselor and a high school technology teacher. Viotty is the only CMAP student working directly with teens.

The idea for her thesis—to center on data literacy—came to Viotty during Civic Media design I, a course taught by Catherine D'Ignazio, a professor at the Engagement Lab. Viotty said that D’Ignazio showed her how to visualize data.

 “I’ve been working with teens for a few years now and I had been fascinated with the idea of data literacy,” Viotty said. “And I thought, ‘What better location to partner with than a library?’”

Paul Mihailidis, the co-director of the Engagement Lab, said that the CMAP program was developed because the Engagement Lab staff noticed how the community had been appreciative of the projects the Lab had implemented. 

Mihailidis sees a lot of potential growth in Viotty’s CMAP project and is excited to see where she takes it. 

“[DIY Data Art] is a project that has a tangible model and plan,” Mihailidis said.

 Currently, Viotty is only working with one branch of the Boston Public Library, but later on she wants to scale up the DIY Data Art program to more libraries across the country.

Mihailidis sees this goal as achievable, because in the past he has noticed that communities are always responsive when it comes to changes and knows that Viotty has what it takes to expand this project.

“My hope is that in maybe a year or two years,” Viotty said. “It goes to different libraries across the nation.”