When the Data Move You

Katie Headrick Taylor
University of Washington, Seattle

What does it mean to write an evidence-based story at the scale of the city? How do mobile, geolocative technologies support people to author new, forgotten, or ignored stories of their neighborhoods? And how is walking along these texts a necessary form of reading for understanding complex data?

These questions guided the work that a team of researcher-educators have been doing on a STEAM curriculum called Mobile City Science; student participants spent weeks walking through the neighborhoods surrounding their schools, collecting data about the cultural and recreational assets close by. Their ultimate charge was to use the data they collected, both on-the-move and online, to imagine and write possible futures for their communities. The results were both playful and painful stories of urban renewal, decay, and revival.

Two young women living in Queens, Asha and Liv, participated in the New York City version of Mobile City Science. As they started looking across different data sources, they found some surprising discrepancies. It wasn’t surprising that their neighborhood hosted many noteworthy cultural assets, like the Louis Armstrong House, or that it was one of the most racially and ethnically diverse locales in the city. No. The biggest surprise was that, when compared to similar data points, their borough surpassed Manhattan in most measures tourists recognize as desirable “reasons for visiting a big city.” Yet, much to their chagrin, Asha and Liv’s community was literally off the map of supporting tourist infrastructure like bus tours and walking guides.

In response to this discrepancy, Asha and Liv designed their own bus tour, using Google My Maps, of their community in Queens. In many ways, the tour recreated the paths they took on data-collecting walks. In other ways, the students’ bus trip was a direct response to Manhattan tours that claimed to showcase the cultural diversity of New York City writ large. In proposing their idea to a group of Queens stakeholders, Asha stated “What we want is for people to know that you can see, you can witness, you can experience the diversity when you come to Queens. And you can see that when you’re on the bus tour in a short period of time.”

In addition to the bus tour, students collected and synthesized data to create a range of community counter-maps. Litter hot spots, health facility dead zones, and pedestrian death traps are just a few more examples. But for all of the topical miscellany, there was also thematic agreement; youth counter-maps relied on the importance of corporeal mobility and stories-in-place to make data come alive. Students took-up the complexity of the city and expected readers/users to make unexpected meanings of texts based on how and what was encountered in community spaces. Therefore, there was no “one way” to interpret an evidence-based story of a community’s potential, but reading such a story meant moving along the storyline–on foot, in a bus–to hold the data, the place, and the objectives of the authors in constant relation.

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