Where Activism Meets Enterprise : Ramzi Jaber on Data Science for Social Good

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Jaber at the 2014 International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East, Sophia University, Tokyo. Photo courtesy of flickr.

Earlier this semester, as part of Israeli Apartheid week, Ramzi Jaber was invited to give a talk at Tufts about the intersections of technology, data science, and design for social justice. Ramzi’s organization Visualizing Impact sits at this very unique cross pollination of fields under the umbrella of 21st century journalism, producing data-driven narratives of social inequities and issues around the world – in short, “visual stories for social justice.” Their outputs — from infographics to platforms — illustrate powerful and often shocking societal and economic issues, with the goal of informing the public as well as initiating social change. Here’s one such visceral example visualizing the human body over the course of a hunger strike, produced in response to Palestinian activist Khader Adnan’s 66 day hunger strike under administrative detention:

Photo courtesy of visualizingimpact.org.

 

At his Tufts talk, Ramzi discussed such thematic issues in great length and detail, while also explaining the technical underpinnings of his work (leveraging public APIs, creating statistical models in R).

Ramzi’s work exemplifies a gradient between technology and social good, one that is perhaps crucial for the student population (particularly the activist community at Tufts) to recognize and understand and even utilize as a tool as they advocate for social justice. The following is a lightly edited transcript of his interview with Enigma, sharing some insights about this very need.

What inspired you to start visualizing impact? Tell us about the ‘back story’.

The backstory is, (and I think this is true for many other companies when it comes to narrative and data journalism), being hit by the reality that we’re living in a sociopolitical framework that dictates how we live and the choices we make, [for which] there’s a lot of data and yet nobody knows about the data – clear injustices happening to a community and there’s a lot of data and nobody’s learning about it. So that kind of storyline is quite common for many people around the world who do data journalism or data visualization – one, they are either curious or two, there’s a need to use data for social good. We want to add nuance and in-context visual stories that say “here’s the bigger picture.”

What’s the most shocking or interesting issue that Visualizing Impact has tackled? You discussed some of them when you spoke here.

One of the things that did go viral was on politician salaries — a lot of people are really skeptical about politicians, [asking] “oh, they take a lot of money?” But even formally, the disparity is great, because we only plotted formal income and even that is quite disparate. We tried to show not how much they make – make as much money as you want, but bring your citizens with you. Also, we wanted to include the concept of the Gini coefficient, which is the inequality index, because a lot of times in current economic theory, higher GDP means more progress…but what about equality? What about bringing everybody progress? So that’s something we wanted to communicate.


 

A visual illustration of unemployment in the Arab world illustrated by food platters. Photo courtesy of visualizingimpact.org.

 


 

Based on your work, what do you think is the most difficult part of the data science process? Is it acquiring the relevant data – finding it, scraping it, or more the technical part of creating an accessible visual narrative?

A good rule of thumb if you’re [producing] a data visualization is remove the text. Does the visualization, on its own, tell you a good story? You [should] view an infographic or data visualization as the edge of the string that people will want to unravel and know more [about]. You shouldn’t be there to explain the whole story — some people write entire books, make documentaries, write Ph.D. theses on it — you don’t want to do that and our target audiences don’t have time for that. It’s the equivalent of an article and you can’t explain everything in an article. That’s a struggle we have as an organization — my information architect wants [stories] to be more nuanced and I want simple, simple. We always fought but we came to the agreement that, okay, from the outset, is this an information type [visual] or an “advertising” type? So that allows us to be on same page.


We’re living in a sociopolitical framework that dictates how we live and the choices we make, [for which] there’s a lot of data and yet nobody knows about the data.


Do you draw inspiration from other sources?

I draw inspiration continuously! We don’t just draw inspiration from names we all know like David Mccandless or Edward Tufte — medical visualization is very interesting. We look at Computer Science, we look at art and see how [artists] do installations. You know who I’m really inspired by? John Oliver. He uses a lot of data and he uses humor — he diffuses [issues]. Each theme is about a very, very important topic and if you try to count the data points he uses, it’s a lot. So I draw a lot inspiration from [him] — using unconventional methods to take really important issues and “visualize” them. I mean, we don’t have the budget that John Oliver does, but we partner up with people. We try to create tools for people to use.

So let’s talk about ‘social entrepreneurship.’ A lot of Tufts students are very passionate about activism in different political and social issues, but it seems difficult to bridge the gap between activism and entrepreneurship. How do you think young people can begin to translate their passion for political / social issues into ‘practice’ and begin to actually initiate change?

There’s a simple answer to that. Activism is basically about ‘leading an active life,’ so trying to look at issues and saying this is wrong, or this needs to change — [activists] see a flaw or a need to serve a community. Entrepreneurship is a very similar thing where [entrepreneurs] see a need and they also try to serve towards that — the idea is, how can you add value? Adding value is such an impeccable quality that your service is wanted by both sectors. We actually work with for-profits because they see such value in us. So the idea isn’t about how to merge them – the key thing is what can you do that creates value? How can you create something that both addresses an issue and creates value in terms of the marketplace?

We wanted to get your opinion on how social networks have played a role in propagating change. What are your thoughts on mobile technology and social networks in addition to visualizations as such tools?

That’s a great question. Part of the reason that we use static visualizations (and then started moving to others), is because they’re self propagating through social networks. There are millions of documentaries about amazing things, but how are you going to propagate a documentary? Who’s going to watch it? The medium of [infographics] was created because the network suited it — we catered our medium towards this network. In terms of mobilization, there’s a really good book, by Evgeny Morozov that talks about the dangers of the Internet and how oppressive regimes use it to clamp down on people as well. So, the Internet is only a tool and a function of how the community uses it.


Activism is basically about ‘leading an active life,’ so trying to look at issues and saying this is wrong, or this needs to change — [activists] see a flaw or a need to serve a community. Entrepreneurship is a very similar thing where [entrepreneurs] see a need and they also try to serve towards that.


 

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Soubhik Barari
Editor-in-chief.
Soubhik Barari is a senior majoring in Computer Science and Mathematics. He can be reached at soubhik.barari@tufts.edu.
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Jaime Sanchez
Lead Editor & Web Developer.
Jaime is a senior majoring in Computer Science. He can be reached at jaime.sanchez@tufts.edu

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