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.

Administrative Discharges

For our final project, Taylor and I are going to be exploring the issue of abuse of administrative discharges in the military post-9/11.

“Administrative Discharge is the military’s way of “firing” you. It means your branch of service either doesn’t have enough evidence of misconduct to punish you with an Art 15 [non-judicial punishment] or they are just tired of having you around and want you gone.” (source)
During the Vietnam era, 6% of servicemembers were discharged in this way. Post-9/11, the number is 13%. Depending on the character of their discharge (generally either general or other than Honorable in the case of administrative discharges), a servicemember who would otherwise be entitled to benefits loses most (the GI Bill educational benefits being the first to go) or all (VA, housing, etc) otherwise earned benefits.
This is a problem for a variety of reasons. First, it represents a process that has the illusion of due process but in reality lacks it; second, the reasons administrative discharges are sometimes initiated show a disconnect between the things the military claims to care about and how they actually deal with it in practice (for example, administratively discharging suicide attempt survivors or those who report sexual assault); and third, there is a long, usually unsuccessful, and burdensome process for upgrading an administrative discharge to an Honorable one after the fact.
We’re looking to approach these larger, policy-based problems through a look at an individual story of a veteran (who at this moment will remain anonymous as we confirm this person’s interest and involvement in the project) who was administratively discharged after attempting suicide, was denied benefits he sorely needed as a result, and has spent 8 years unsuccessfully attempting to have his status upgraded.
Our next steps:
  • Confirm individual involvement in project.
  • Determine which pieces of the problem and story are most resonant with different populations of folks, especially those without any connection or interest in military issues.
  • Start to map where the individual story overlaps with larger policy problems to help inform where the story would allow users a way into the wonkier big picture.
  • Speak with people involved in the issue of administrative discharges and discharge upgrades to determine what the most effective last step is – what should the call to action be in an ideal world?

Midterm 1st MVP

When I posted my concept package last week, I said I was struggling. I still feel that way. In order to try and simplify things a little bit given the tight time frame, I decided to build off a project from last semester that had major issues by rethinking about it in terms of the human-centric design process. I also wanted to think about the data used in that project in a more storytelling-heavy way, and how to use data from the near past to say something about the present and future. Given the 15th anniversary of US Military presence in Afghanistan passed on October 7th without people really caring, I think the moment is ripe to remind people of what has occurred and that these things continue to occur to some extent. Continue reading

Gov’t Forms and Docs as storytelling medium

Challenge, Goal, & Tone

This week’s work, as with much of what I do at ITP, concerns itself with the gap in understanding between military and non-military populations in America. Despite being one of the largest institutions in American society, everything from the mundane day-to-day to the extreme edges of military experience is not terribly well understood. The goal, then, is to help bridge this divide and give people access to and understanding of the military in a way they didn’t before.

Tone is always tricky in this space. People at ITP often talk about playfulness and fun, but I feel like not enough time is devoted to the power of unpleasant or trying experiences – things that people may not want to experience more than once, but have power because of their unpleasantness. When looking at ways to translate military experiences into new storytelling mediums, this applies especially.

The Concept

For this week’s assignment, I decided to revisit a concept I’ve been working through in my head for awhile. One of my first user tests at ITP involved bringing a bunch of paper-based objects related to the military in just to see how people reacted to them. I was surprised to learn that people were really interested in official forms and documents and in learning more about their place in lived experiences.

Paperwork and recordkeeping is huge in the military. An individual’s paper trail could easily tell their entire military story, albeit in a very impersonal, official way. Because of how intense day-to-day experiences and their effects can be, many of these records and forms become infused with memories and emotions. Exploring how technology can give a form context and allow others to understand their greater significance is what I set out to do this week.

I decided to keep it simple given the short time frame. Though I think there are many types of sensory stimulation that can be paired with a document, I chose to focus on sound this week. I also decided to keep it to one form and one audio clip as a proof of concept, since the particular technology I was going to be using was new to me.


This week, I was able to chat with one of my friends who has no experience with the sort of technology I was going to be using but lots of experience with military forms and paperwork. We ran through a lot of forms and what sort of audio he might see as working well within the context of telling a story people may not be incredibly familiar with. We talked about the enlistment contract, deployment orders, the DD214 (discharge paperwork), and various medical paperwork. Though a large part of me feels like there is a lot to be learned from some of the more mundane paperwork, this week I decided to prototype using a form that exists at an extreme – the Tactical Combat Casualty Care (TCCC) Card.


I used foil and an Arduino to turn the card into a touch sensor. I set up a sketch using p5 to play audio of a TCCC simulation when the form is touched.

I’m not super happy with it. One, I had never created a touch sensor and didn’t have time in a week to totally make it work. It’s rather buggy. In retrospect, the particular form and audio that I chose to use to test the concept of forms as story was not that great. I think there are probably far better things out there.

I would like future iterations of this to come about as a result of interviews conducted with folks using forms as a way to draw out stories. In a week, I did not have time to set this up, but may revisit in the future.

p5 code written can be viewed here.

Slavery Footprint + my very own JSON

I tried the Slavery Footprint experience. 26 slaves work for me according to their metrics. Here are my thoughts:

  • I never felt like I had the tools and information to totally answer some of the things they were asking. The diet portion asked me to recall far too much and make too many estimations about my diet so as to be practically useless in my case. The medicine cabinet part was a bit confusing.
  • I think they automatically disabled some of the things that are considered “lady only” based on my gender answer. This is arguably problematic, but it was also just weird seeing some already unchecked. The icons in this portion were a mixed bag as well – I could tell which was a razor, but had to stare for awhile to realize the palm trees represented sunscreen. The icon for aspirin seemed to stand in for all medications, and it seemed strange to me that this section had no way to refine the bathroom part more.
  • The closet part was annoying because everything defaulted to 50 and the sliders were small enough that they didn’t allow me to fine-tune easily.
  • The project measures how many slaves you have working for you, so there’s obviously going to be a bit of an accusatory tone to it. I think they do a very good job of making it inviting and judgement-free for the most part, but found myself chafing at the sex-for-pay portion because it becomes significantly more hamfisted in this regard.
  • I need to give them my email in order to see a detailed breakdown of my numbers. I would love to have that information, but I am guarded with my email address and don’t want to give it to them.

My JSON is a list of the warnings/cautions/dangers found in the Soldier’s Manual of Common Tasks/Warrior Skills Level 1 book. I’ve often wanted to do something with these – they represent the most extreme conditions and possibilities a soldier may face. I plan to create a project from this JSON later. It’s incomplete, because there were far more than I thought there would be, but it can be viewed here.

I also wanted to share a JSON I made last semester for this (not totally responsive) project. One of my intentions this semester is to improve upon this project, so I wanted to make sure it’s on your radar.