Students were asked to create a diagram of their personal interactions on a postcard. Graph by Diana Paz Garcia '21

“In this class, I’ve seen that data doesn’t have to be an Excel spreadsheet for five hours. It could be word clouds; it could be maps; it could be art.”
—Diana Paz Garcia ’21

Can Craigslist reveal the vibe of a city? Professor Aisling Quigley’s students are about to find out. In Zoom breakout rooms, students pore over Craigslist lost & found data for New York and Minneapolis. Among their observations: pet words like “cat,” “collar,” and “fur” are more common in Minneapolis; “reward” is more frequent in New York; and “please” appears a lot more in Minneapolis than New York.

This hands-on activity is typical for Quigley’s Introduction to Data Storytelling course. Along with readings and discussions, students often investigate and look for patterns in real-world data. 

“Aisling is very creative with the way she makes us engage with the materials,” says Diana Paz Garcia ’21 (Mexico City, Mexico). “I was not expecting to get that excited every time I log into class.”

In the past, Paz Garcia’s approach to data analysis was “more square, with not a lot of space for creativity or ethical considerations,” she says. “In this class, I’ve seen that data doesn’t have to be an Excel spreadsheet for five hours. It could be word clouds; it could be maps; it could be art.” 

How do we use data to tell stories? 

Aisling Quigley

“If  … you aren’t represented by the Census, how does that impact you as a human being?”
—Professor Quigley

Ethical and design questions surround the collection, analysis, and presentation of data. Who collects data? How do algorithms work? 

“Part of it is learning to be critical of technology,” says Quigley. She hopes to provide a safe and supportive community for students to have meaningful conversations. “Beyond that,” she says. “I really hope that they think about data differently.” 

One class session focused on why labels matter in terms of representation. 

“For example, the 2020 Census still only lists the male/female option under gender,” Quigley says. “If you aren’t represented in this data set, or you aren’t represented by the Census, how does that impact you as a human being?”

Through the process of creating his own data projects, Matthew Wilkinson ’22 (Bellingham, Wash.) learned that a high volume of data means making decisions about what to prioritize—and what to leave out. “Every time you have to narrow down your data set, you make important choices that impact the story you’re trying to tell,” he says. 

Data postcards

The data postcard assignment was a favorite among students. Inspired by Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec of Dear Data, students tracked their social interactions over seven days. Each student defined what “social interaction” meant to them. For instance, Paz Garcia tracked every virtual or in-person conversation that lasted 15 minutes or more. Students then created physical postcards to visualize the data in a way they found meaningful. 

“The data postcard assignment was super relevant for me because almost all of my social interaction is online these days,” says Wilkinson. “It got me thinking about things that are important.”

“Whenever I’m bored, I call somebody up,” says Paz Garcia. “Maybe I should be able to take a little more time by myself.” 

Diversity audit for Macalester’s library

For her final project, Paz Garcia assisted Macalester’s library with a diversity audit. Library diversity audits look at the experiences and perspectives that are reflected in the collection and use these lessons to inform collection development. 

Paz Garcia’s group analyzed the nationality and ethnicity of authors in one of the collections. 

“I like that our work doesn’t finish with a grade at the end of the semester, but that we are introducing something in the school and thinking about a practical and realistic way to apply our knowledge,” says Paz Garcia.  

Career tools 

Quigley continually introduces students to new methods and tools for data analysis.

“Every Thursday, we do a lab with a new tool,” says Wilkinson. “It’s been a hugely helpful overview of what’s possible. If I need to quantify some part of a persuasive argument, I have a wide list of tools.” 

For a class session on data journalism, Jackie Gu and Mira Rojanasakul logged on to discuss their work at Bloomberg. Using data and graphics, they report on stories ranging from the connection between domestic violence and mass shootings to the devastating wildfires in Australia.  

“It was really cool to hear the people who made the data visualization projects talk about them,” says Wilkinson. “Both of them talked about combining their interests outside of data science and then using visualization methods to tell stories they want to tell.” 

Lasting impact

Wilkinson, a double major in linguistics and anthropology, plans to apply the skills he learned in Intro to Data Storytelling to his future career. “Whatever I’m doing, I can definitely see myself benefiting from the ability to present numbers and tell stories in a cool way,” he says. 

For Paz Garcia, who holds majors in political science and international studies, and a concentration in human rights, the course has also proved invaluable. “I want to go into conflict resolution at an international level,” she says. “I will have to write reports with graphs and analyze data.”

Not only has the course provided Paz Garcia with tools for data analysis, it has transformed how she views data. “My data doesn’t only have to be a complement to my paper, but on the contrary, my data by itself should be able to tell a story,” she says.

March 9 2021

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