25 Jun 2019

Adding Impact to Storytelling with Data Visualization

A picture is worth a thousand words. But what if your pictures contained thousands of data points, too? That's exactly what Ornell Caeser did to highlight systemic issues surrounding incarcerated populations in New York.

Forge partnered with WeXL.org and DeveloperWeek in San Francisco to showcase a conversation series on how Data Visualization can be used to add impact to storytelling.

Data Visualization for Storytelling

The goal was to showcase how Data Visualization can be used to add impact to storytelling, particularly stories of social change. The story we focused on together was that of Ornell Caeser and how he used data visualization, dashboards, and JavaScript to draw focus on issues surrounding New York's incarcerated population and prison recidivism. Caeser is a full-stack JavaScript developer.

He's recently built a public health application and for this visualization exercise partnered with Nag, Inc, a company that uses data to do mapping, tracking, trend analysis, machine learning, among other things. In addition to that, Caeser also represents the Bard Prison Initiative which seeks to provide college education to incarcerated peoples in the New York area. 

How the dashboard was built

Caeser used a few different JavaScript tools coupled with publicly available data to create the dashboard. During his talk at DeveloperWeek, he actually did some live coding vs. using code samples so the audience could see how easy it was to get up to speed.  Some of the tools he used were D3.js, DC JS, and Crossfilter. You can watch his full talk below. And check out the code samples on GitHub.


What story did the data tell? 

The dashboard displayed New York prison data. It segmented some of the most staggering statistics quickly in a number of ways. And by visually displaying this data it becomes very easy to see disparities in things like age, race, county, gender, etc. 

One of the very astounding statistics this highlighted was total incarceration rates and prison recidivism. Prison recidivism is the rate by which former inmates return to prison in the next 1 to 3 years. With the dashboard, Caeser was able to quickly and unequivocally highlight very specific groups that were disproportionately affected.

Caeser shared in his presentation that there are approximately 2.1 million people incarcerated in the United States and that New York is among the states with the largest prison populations. He also highlights that prison recidivism nationwide is closer to 65% while the New York state recidivism rate is closer to 70-75%.

Prison Recidivism Dashboard


So this data exercise was able to highlight a true corrections problem. Corrections are not correcting. Furthermore, after diving deeper into the data, Caeser was able to highlight very specific communities that are driving these numbers up. Most affected were, he noted, were people of color, specifically African-American males, and geographically concentrated in lower income, urban counties.

Now we know that change is needed, what happens next?

The Data Visualization prompted a larger follow up conversation about what's been done and what can be done different to drive positive change to these numbers and impacted communities. Recently there was a follow up discussion on WeXL's series, REPRESENT with Arabella DeLucco and Gabriella Deyi discussing the issue with Ornell Caesar, who in addition to being a programmer is a representative of the Bard Prison Initiative along with Josh Becker, California State Senate candidate, public policy innovator, and Silicon Valley entrepreneur and VC. They spent 20 minutes talking about these issues and discussed what we as a community can do to support change.

You can watch the recording below.


Partnering with WeXL.org

Forge has a long relationship with Founder and CEO of WeXL, Arabella DeLucco. She was one of the earliest Forge team members that launched our partnership with the DeveloperWeek community.

Since then, she has gone on to launch WeXL, a non-profit that connects a diverse creative workforce of storytellers, engineers, and artists from underserved communities with mentors to apply their creativity and innovation to creating a just and more prosperous world. So, when she reached out to me to see if we'd be interested in supporting efforts on using data visualization to support positive community change, we were pretty excited to jump on board.

We look forward to following watching this dialogue progress and eagerly await the next version of Caeser's visualization project. This time incorporating the Forge Viewer and 3D data visualizations to his dashboard.

For more info on WeXL and Ornell Caeser, check out the WeXL website. 

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