Responsible Empathy

/ March 23, 2016

Should data visualization be a subjective art or an objective science? Can we find a middle ground?

The Seductive Power of Dataviz

Data visualizations are a powerful tool for communicating information about human rights issues to varied audiences in a clear, accessible way. After attending the Responsible Data Forum (RDF) on Data Visualization I found myself wondering if, in the visualizations we create, we think enough about the people behind the data and the way they experience a particular violation, event or trend. Of course, this issue isn’t specific to data visualizations. It is a problem that storytellers of any medium need to be aware of. But as data visualization proliferates in social change work, it’s the time to ask ourselves as set of hard questions to ensure that we don’t spread problematic practices.

The connection between experience and storytelling is the very foundation of social change work. However, because we’re telling stories to an audience that is constantly inundated with information, we often have to balance explaining the subtleties of context with producing a compelling narrative.

From a human rights research perspective, we collect, analyze and communicate data about specific human rights violations to bring about positive change. Most human rights researchers take great care to ensure that research (data collection), the first stage of the data life-cycle, is ethical. This often involves principles, such as “do no harm”, consent, and data minimization: in broad strokes, the rule of thumb is to only collect the data strictly necessary for the project. Abiding to these principles are generally understood to mitigate potential harms related to ‘possessing’ someone else’s data and, if implemented conscientiously and consistently, minimize risk.

Appropriation of Empathy

Could telling the story ever be more important than respecting the experience of the people in it?

But what happens when the data collected moves further through the life-cycle? I have long feared that when we quantify, manipulate and package qualitative data, we commodify it. Particularly when we work for organisations whose existences are intrinsically linked to fundraising and action-based indicators of success.  

To change a human rights situation, we need to tell a story that evokes empathy, as Mushon and Steve discussed in their blog posts. But, the reasons for wanting to generate empathy are sometimes appropriated for institutional goals that are not directly connected to the situation at hand. On some occasions, I have been the one to halt data usage, saying:

  •  ‘No, no, no we can’t use the information like that!’;
  •  ‘How can we present the information like that, when we don’t have consent to do so?’;
  • ‘I don’t think that is how the community would like the story told’.

I have been told that these kinds of arguments are ‘disruptive’ and obstruct ‘other organizational priorities’ like growth and fundraising. The need to tell a compelling story often seems more important than communicating the nuances of each individual’s or particular community’s experience. This is particularly so in an increasingly competitive NGO environment. This scares me.

Are we confusing evoking empathy (to facilitate change) with making money or fostering a supporter base for our organizations? It is imperative that those involved with supporting social change organisations with data visualizations do not contribute to this. Instead, they need to use this popular ‘tool’ to ensure messaging draws the right balance and keeps the context.

Responsibilities of Subjectivity

Is it ever OK to tell a story about a human rights violation without a call to action?

Another example of appropriation can be found in situations where data about human rights issues are used purely for awareness-raising, with no associated call to act. A few months ago, I attended an event related to the UN ‘data revolution’. I found myself standing on top of the Microsoft building in Times Square with a virtual reality kit, through which I was transported to a Syrian refugee camp. I was no longer on a rooftop garden in one of the richest cities in the world; I was following a girl through her day, learning about her reality. With the press of a button I was then in Liberia in a field of graves, surrounded by people in hazmat suits motioning for me to help them lower the corpse of an Ebola victim into a grave.

These representations, presumably built upon the real experiences of individuals, certainly evoked my empathy, and I wanted to do something about it. I ventured inside to see the call to action; I wanted to know who was behind the videos, how they worked with the communities, and what the community was calling for – basically, I wanted to know the plan. But I didn’t find it. There was no campaign to get behind, no petition to sign – and no outlet for the overwhelming emotion I was feeling.

When I talked to others about this, they suggested that maybe it was ‘just art’ that didn’t necessarily need a call to action, and was simply meant to make me experience something other than my own context. I went home furious. Was it meant to be some sort of strange entertainment based on human suffering? Without a call to action, are projects like these a return to the pornography of poverty? Who has the right to make art based on someone’s suffering without trying to change it? Although this example isn’t about data visualization, it is a lesson we have to pay attention to.

Whose Priorities?

I have no doubt that data visualization and other emerging forms of human rights documentation and representations can be incredibly powerful tools for social change. I also fully believe in the importance of strong and innovative fundraising. Organizations must be able to raise enough money to do their work and have have strong human resources practices for their staff.

However, taking liberties with the data – the story – in the name of anything but the true contexts of people’s experiences is highly problematic. It disconnects and disempowers individuals from their own experience, and their ability to affect their own situation. And it contributes to what I think represents a dangerous cycle of sensationalism in social change advocacy.

We all have a responsibility to ensure that storytelling, in any form, does not lapse into exploitation. This responsibility must take precedence over any of our academic or organisational priorities.

About the contributor

Danna is a feminist human rights lawyer with over 10 years experience working with local and international organisations all over the world on issues ranging from migrant worker rights to data ethics, including with organisations such as the Red Cross and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. She specialises in human rights defenders support and protection, and has developed participatory tech approaches like the Panic Button application for activists at risk. She was previously Responsible Data Program Manager at The Engine Room and currently works as Research and Policy Adviser on Technology & Human Rights at the Amnesty’s London office. She is particularly interested in rethinking what informed consent looks like in a digital age, and in supporting the responsible use of data in human rights.

See Danna's Articles

5 thoughts on "Responsible Empathy"

Leave a Reply

Related /

/ December 15, 2022

Building an embodied approach to data – an interview with Anja Kovacs

/ October 11, 2022

Exploring fundamental flaws behind digital consent  – an interview with Georgia Bullen

/ June 1, 2022

Seven Essential Questions for Ethical War Crimes Documentation