Living in Data | Jer Thorp

Summary of: Living in Data: A Citizen’s Guide to a Better Information Future
By: Jer Thorp


Welcome to the summary of ‘Living in Data: A Citizen’s Guide to a Better Information Future’ by Jer Thorp. This informative read will explore the world of data visualization and its impact on our daily lives. The author delves into the power dynamics of data collection and use while advocating for a more decentralized web that puts communities in control of their own data. Prepare to engage with topics like data inequality, the importance of constructing data responsibly, and practical examples of how artists and activists make data more meaningful and accessible to secure a more equitable future.

Uncovering the Invisible through Data Visualization

Jer Thorp, a data artist and TED speaker, uncovers the complex aspects of data by visualizing it. Thorp is passionate about making data more equitable by advocating for a decentralized web that returns data stories to the communities that created them.

Data Citizenship

In the book, the author, Adam Thorp, explores the theme of “closing the loop” between data and the people it comes from and highlights the critical need for people to acknowledge they are data citizens. Thorp emphasizes that people construct data rather than merely finding it, and to end social inequality, everyone must take personal charge of their own data and block collectors who invade their privacy. The author reveals how those in power control data and reinforces social inequality by deciding who collects data, from whom, and for what purposes they can use it. Artist Mimi Onuoha is an example of someone who accumulates missing datasets, such as those on marginalized groups like ethnic minorities, Indigenous peoples, LGBTQ+ and disabled individuals. Thorp highlights that the group that has the data has no incentive to make it available, while the group that wants the data doesn’t have the resources to collect it. In conclusion, the author seeks to further knowledge and protect those from whom data is collected through their full participation and responsible data collection.

The Mismatches of Data Reality

The data collection process starts at the genesis moment, becoming more complex as it transforms into various data about its origin, measurability, and analysis. However, data collection is limited to binary choices, which do not reflect the nuances of real-world situations. This mismatch between binary data and lived reality creates problems when data is applied to the real world, whether by people or algorithms. The desire to start over with a better database stems from the limitations of binary data and its incapacity to represent real-world complexities effectively.

The Dehumanization of Numbers

In his book, Thorp discusses how the human brain struggles to conceptualize enormous numbers, leading to the dehumanization of people. To demonstrate this, theater students in Manchester tried to represent the world’s population with rice grains. However, due to the vastness of the population, they settled on representing Britain’s population with 60 million grains. Thorp argues that this tendency to generalize and use placeholders can distance people from their true numerical value, and encourages readers to consider alternatives to this dehumanizing process.

The Map Room: Unlocking Civic Data for Marginalized Communities

The Map Room, created by Jer Thorp, uses personal narratives to help marginalized communities access public data. Silicon Valley has steered users toward commercial venues to profit from users accessing their own data. The Map Room empowers users by providing access to civic data. Thorp’s 2017 debut in a St. Louis school exemplified how students used maps of their neighborhoods to compare with historical records, revealing redlining that persists today. The Map Room helps marginalized communities read civic data, empowered through personal narratives to reveal how inequality was embedded in the American landscape.

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