↞ My work

#NRA2DOJ: Embodying gun death data

I designed data visualizations based on the number of gun deaths per year mapped to the length of the #NRA2DOJ march route.

Created with Leaflet.js (geo) and Adobe Illustrator.
Source: CDC fastats, Women’s March

How can we reduce the psychological distance between ourselves and vital data, such as gun deaths?

Core to conversation about guns is the number of people shot by weapons, especially people of color killed by the police. According to the CDC, the number of people killed by guns in 2014 is 33,594.

The problem with numbers, even when visualized in a compelling way (below), is that they often remain distance from our immediate concern:

Unlike data, in-person community gatherings, like marches and protests, bring a sense of emotional weight to issues (such as gun violence) that can remain in the abstract for those who are privileged enough to not encounter them.

For example, In July 2017, the leadership of the Woman’s March organized a march, #NRA2DOJ, based in part on the NRA’s rhetoric in response to the verdict of the Philando Castile trial. Castile, a legal gun owner, was shot by law enforcement at the sight of his firearm.

What struck me about this march was the grueling length, 18 miles, in the hot July sun. What’s interesting about measuring the instances we travel, such as planned march routes or using fitness trackers (like Fitbit), is that we embody this data with every muscle ache and sweat drop. In a sense, we feel the miles we’ve walked and thus embody the associated data.

There is a direct relationship between the number of steps we take and our sensitivity to them. While walking, we are forced to experience each step individually in sequence. We feel the weight of each step near the end of an 18 mile trek. Conversely, there is an inverse relationship between the number of deaths we encounter in a data set and our sensitivity to them. The more deaths we hear about, the more abstract the numbers become. Each person loses their individuality in a sea of data points.

Furthermore, when we walk, especially a few miles in, we’re forced to experience each step sequentially. Perhaps if we map our steps in this grueling 18-mile march, perhaps the gun deaths would have a physical weight in our minds; we might feel less detached from the abstract numbers.

An example of this technique is the Voyage Scale Model Solar System on the national mall in Washington, D.C.:

I wondered what would happen to my perception of the data if the physical steps of the #NRA2DOJ route were mapped to deaths. Was it possible to feel a heightened sense of the tragedy of gun deaths?

The data

I started with the idea of mapping the route between the NRA to the Department of Justice. I used Google Maps to find a walking path from the NRA to the DOJ (the march organizers didn’t disclose the actual walking path beforehand because of security concerns).

Then, I used leaflet.js to map the path:

I modified a version of Stamen’s Toner tile set, using CSS to lower the opacity of the tiles to allow an orange colored background to show through.

Then, I calculated two statistics for the march:

  • How many gun deaths does every mile of the march symbolize? 1,800 deaths
  • How many gun deaths does every couple of steps of the march symbolize? For every 3 steps, 2 deaths

The design

Using a screenshot of the path, I used Photoshop and Illustrator to modify the map colors and add text:

Final thoughts

There are several techniques designers and journalists use to recover the individual lost in large data sets, such as focusing on the stories of key individuals. I wonder if introducing data into physical, activism-oriented spaces, such as protests and marches, could be another effective tool in this arsenal.

The idea of mapping data to physical locations has been effectively executed by countless artists, such as the AIDS memorial quilt:

I wonder in what other ways we can reduce our psychological distance to important data through the use of physical labor, using tasks such walking. Maybe a long workout could bring our hearts closer to tragedy.