Data-driven storytelling is the journalistic wave of the future. At websites like the New York Times’s Upshot and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, writers are transforming numbers into visual narratives that illuminate modern life. MIT Assistant Professor Sarah Williams, director of the Civic Data Design Lab, is at the forefront of the movement.

She uses data, maps, and mobile technologies to develop interactive communications strategies that bring urban issues to broader audiences. Her work is crucial: she combines geographic analysis and design to make problems visible to policy makers. It’s a new way of confronting civic challenges, especially in metropolitan areas.

“Data visualization brings a story to a broader group of people. Raw data is often too complex, it needs to be synthesized into something anyone can understand and used as evidence for developing civic change,” she says. “I work at the intersection of technology, design, and policy. I’m excited about using technology in a creative way to effect change.”

Take her recent project, “Industry in Motion.” Here, she successfully used smartphones to crystallize and quantify the spatial network of New York City’s Garment District.

In 2010, New York policy makers and fashion designers were at odds. Officials wanted to rezone the city’s manufacturing hub to outlying areas. “The Garment District occupies high-value real estate,” Williams explains. “Landlords could be making far more money.” Designers argued that having manufacturers in close proximity was crucial to their billion-dollar industry.

To address the issue, the Design Trust for Public Space and the Council of Fashion Designers of America launched Made in Midtown, a comprehensive study of the fashion industry’s presence in New York City with a focus on the Garment District. Williams was selected as a Project Fellow.

Williams and colleague Elizabeth Currid-Halkett designed an analysis to understand fashion workers’ daily routines with additional funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. They used popular social media app Foursquare to track every movement of 100 willing fashion workers employed at design firms inside and outside the Garment District, documenting their day-to-day routines.

Through Foursquare check-ins, Williams and her team could actually visualize the workers’ schedules. She found that 77% of all trips made by fashion designers across the region—and 80% of business trips—were logged within the neighborhood.

“We were able to prove that due to current clustering of fashion businesses in the District, people who had their stores or studios outside the district could do errands just as efficiently as those inside,” she says. “These agglomerations are essential to economic activity.”

Once restricted to surveys and spreadsheets, Williams is also democratizing the data-collection process through mobile devices. She says: “They help provide spatial evidence to back up research that once was only available through interviews. This is more of a quantitative approach,” and one that’s easily accessible to anyone with a phone. To that end, policy makers are better able to understand her conclusions, since they can actually see the spatial data she collects.

Williams is also harnessing data on an international level. In Nairobi, Kenya, her Digital Matatus project is tracking public buses (called matatus) through mobile apps for the first time. Commuters in developed countries might take for granted knowing when the next subway will screech into the station. In developing countries, it’s tougher. “People tended to know their own routes but not others. There were no maps of the overall system, making it hard to use,” Williams says.

Williams is working with the University of Nairobi, Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development, and Groupshot, a technology consulting firm, to collect and standardize transit data for matatus via cell phone app. Thanks to this work, the data will be publicly accessible for the first time. And it has sparked the development of mobile phone apps in Nairobi that help residents plan matatu trips. The team has also released the city’s first full citywide bus map, with plans to launch similar maps in other cities. The visual map has filled an essential need. Proof? The map has gone viral online.

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