NYU Researchers: One Big-Data Picture is Worth a Thousand Words on Human Rights

MacArthur Foundation Funds Project to Convey Human Rights Violations, Conflict-Related Deaths, and Economic and Social Injustice through Data Visualization

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has granted funding to a trio of New York University engineering and law professors who are developing cutting-edge visualization tools that will enable human rights advocates to convey complex information and vividly display their view of a better world.

Although the human rights field is increasingly using data to describe such phenomena as drone attacks, conflict-related deaths, and violations of economic and social rights, very few organizations have the concrete knowledge of data science and the resources needed to create and incorporate effective visualization tools like interactive maps and sophisticated infographics. They lag media in employing these tools—all the more surprising because these graphic elements affect public policy.

The three NYU researchers who are leading the team to rectify that situation are Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Engineering Enrico Bertini and Associate Professor of Technology Management and Innovation Oded Nov, both of the Polytechnic School of Engineering; and Professor of Clinical Law Margaret Satterthwaite, who also serves as the faculty director for NYU’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, director of the Global Justice Clinic, and faculty director for the Robert L. Bernstein Institute for Human Rights at the NYU School of Law. Bertini’s research focuses on effective data visualization techniques, and Nov is an expert in using human-computer interaction for persuasion and attitude change. Satterthwaite’s scholarship has focused on the evidence base for human rights advocacy, indicators and metrics, and the human rights impacts of counter-terrorism measures.

The team began working together in 2013, thanks to an NYU seed grant aimed at advancing collaborative research across the university community. Their two-year, $250,000 MacArthur Foundation grant will enable them to expand upon their pilot study and provide several human rights organizations with hands-on technical assistance and training.

“There has been a recent explosion of data relevant to important social and economic issues,” says Bertini. “If all that data can be visualized, simply and efficiently, organizations can identify patterns and trends and harness them to tell powerful stories that the public needs to hear. We can help get the word out about areas without access to clean water, which is a basic human right, or map civilian casualties in war-torn areas,” for example.

“Our pilot research revealed a low level of statistical literacy within the human rights advocacy world, and there remains a lack of understanding of how both data and data visualization could be deployed most effectively to support human rights messages,” says Nov. “This generous MacArthur Foundation grant will allow us to begin developing science-based guidelines for which messages can be most effectively delivered by graphics, and the best ways to achieve this.”

“The human rights community is eager to embrace data-driven analysis while ensuring the human story remains central,” says Satterthwaite. “We are excited to partner with human rights organizations to ensure they have the most effective tools available to expose the worst abuses and to persuade the powerful to take corrective action.”

About the NYU School of Law
Founded in 1835, New York University School of Law has a long record of academic excellence, national scholarly influence, and innovative achievements. It is a pacesetter in legal education, pioneering new approaches to practical-skills training and the early recognition that law has an increasingly global dimension that should be reflected in the classroom. Its innovative lawyering and clinical programs, interdisciplinary colloquia, public interest initiatives, and law-and-business transaction courses have served as models for others. For more information, visit: http://www.law.nyu.edu.

About the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering
The NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering dates to 1854, when the NYU School of Civil Engineering and Architecture as well as the Brooklyn Collegiate and Polytechnic Institute (widely known as Brooklyn Poly) were founded. Their successor institutions merged in January 2014 to create a comprehensive school of education and research in engineering and applied sciences, rooted in a tradition of invention, innovation and entrepreneurship. In addition to programs at its main campus in downtown Brooklyn, it is closely connected to engineering programs in NYU Abu Dhabi and NYU Shanghai, and it operates business incubators in downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn.