The Volunteers, Part 2

For my final, I decided to work with the same data as I did for my midterm. This came after a lot of iterating over different ideas, starting with alcohol consumption tracking and moving to the toxicity of internet comments. I came back to this data in the end because people have told me each time that the individual stories are the most powerful component, and I wanted to use my final to develop a proof of concept of what a visualization would look like if things like photos and a bio were built in to the application itself.

The major design considerations pertained to scalability, and I’m honestly not sure I thought hard enough about this. Of course a design will work when the page only has to load 10 photos, but what happens when it has to load 7000? There’s power in the ability to show all that at once, but there would be a major hit to performance even with thumbnail-sized, low-quality photos. A next step might be to craft a pre-experience that users could run through while the photos were all loading in. This is all very hypothetical at this point, because it would likely take years of full-time work to collect all the assets needed to produce this project on a large scale.


I tried to keep the map in the background – I’m not sure this works, but at such a small scale it’s hard to know if it has the intended effect or not because it doesn’t look like a map yet.

The largest tech challenges I faced with this project related to CSS. I had weird positioning things happening with overlaying DOM elements over a canvas, and the fades were kind of weird. I managed to get them to fade out in a random order when you click on one (with the one clicked always been the last to fade with a bit more of a delay), and that took some time and mostly related to CSS. I also worked with an in-window pop-up to display information about the individual clicked, which involved some CSS shenanigans I had never used before.

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I have to be honest after now working with this data in a very data-centric way over the course of three projects: it’s not effective at getting at what I want. I want people to consider the cost of war from a human perspective, and human stories are the only way that I feel I’m ever going to do that. Even with this iteration, there would be something overwhelming about seeing 7000 photos and stories that would detract from what I want people to get out of it.

By contrast, my project for Hacking Story Frameworks this semester was an installation that followed one person’s military story from start to finish. This was the centerpiece, and the larger systemic and structural things were accessories to that – not the other way around, as it has always been with this data as a project’s center. I received extremely good feedback about this project, including the very direct notion that the installation and story represented the best way in to the issues central to my projects that I have executed at ITP.

It raises philosophical questions about the point of data in social issue projects if people are never going to find it as persuasive as one well-told story.¬†Will data always be best in supporting roles in projects like this? I’m not totally sure yet, but I’m on the cusp of giving up on data-centric social projects if the goal is public engagement and awareness.

That said, this project could make a good museum exhibit if it were ever finished, in a context where it’s overwhelming effect is part of some larger space with other components that would pull out important individual narratives and make them more digestible.