What can we do?

Francis Gagnon
February 24, 2017

See Andy Kirk’s own blog post about this topic.

Truthiness was coined in 2005 and was awarded word of the year in 2006. We had almost gotten used to climate change deniers and vaxxers that challenge scientific consensus et empirical evidence. Now, it seems like daily we are asked to ponder what’s real.

How many people affected by the US Muslim ban? How high is the murder rate in the US? How much money is there for the NHS in Brexit? Soon: What is the unemployment rate? Growth rate? And this is not to mention minor topics like crowd sizes and extent of media coverage.

Wrapped in the daily puzzlement is a challenge to fundamental values. Not long ago, refugees were people in dire need deserving of our greatest generosity. Now, they are presented as the threat they are running from. The right to vote was the very foundation of democracy and today some are openly trying to limit it for political or even racist reasons.

In the Western world, the ideals of liberal democracy and the Enlightenment are under pressure in ways few of us can remember. 

Just one look at the Twitter feed of the Tapestry 2017 participants and the anxiety is palpable in the dataviz community. Here are the first few tweets as I’m writing this on a Monday morning:

These are the first four tweets, no selection. That’s not surprising for a community whose business is often to present facts, to apply a certain intellectual discipline to analysis, to discover news in data. The civic streak of data visualization practioners run deep, from the historical work of John Snow and Florence Nightingale to that of W.E.B. Du Bois and more recently of Hans Rosling who promoted a “fact-based worldview“.

Naturally, this topic immediately came up when chatting with Andy Kirk about our participation to Tapestry on March 1st. What can be done about it? Instead of pontificating, we thought it best to use this rare opportunity of having so many dataviz people together to ask them what they think we can do.

Our poster idea was accepted by the organizers: a mostly-blank poster with a single question:

What can we do?

As citizens but especially as data visualization specialists, what can we do to promote progress through knowledge, to ensure a fair and free press, to defend the values that have brought us peace and prosperity?

We’ll provide post-its and pens to the participants to write what we can do more of and less of. After the conference, we’ll collate the answers and make them available to the community. Until then and after, we hope that the discussion can continue on social media with the hashtag #whatcanwedo.

Pardon the cliché, but really: we can’t wait to hear what you have to propose.

Picture of Francis Gagnon

Francis Gagnon

Francis Gagnon is the founder of Voilà: (2013), an information design company specializing in sustainable development.

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