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On September 7th, 2014, I boarded a plane from New York City to London to officially begin my stint as a National Geographic Fulbright Digital Storytelling Fellow. Today, close to a year later, I’ve finally launched the output of this year of work, research, and investigation. That result is Pathways, a website that presents an exploration of a month’s worth of mobile data from four different groups of Londoners.
I came to London interested in what our data can tell us about our lives, as experienced online and offline. I was profoundly aware of the vast amounts of data we generate daily, and even more mindful of how easily that data can be ignored. This dichotomy fueled my desire to investigate people’s relationships with their mobile data. I wanted to know what stories data collected from phones could (and could not) tell about the owners of those mobile phones.
Even as I write these words, there are countless examples that point to the increasingly important role that data is playing in our lives today. From incidents like the recent Ashley Madison hacks to discoveries that our governments regularly monitor citizens, it’s clear that our data has the potential to speak louder than we may be willing to accept. We no longer have a choice about whether or not we want to investigate what our data says about us— if we aren’t the ones to willingly do that work, the evidence shows that there are others with far less altruistic intentions who will. In this sense, Pathways is centrally positioned in this shifting world that we find ourselves in, where the laws and mores of what our data means and how it should be handled are still being determined.
But at the same time, there are stories Pathways tells that are neither new nor uncertain. Rather, they’re universal experiences that we can all identify with. On the site, you’ll find stories that range from celebratory to bittersweet—truths about families, friendships, and the bonds that define us. The data of the people I worked with paints rich and fascinating portraits, and I’m just as excited for you to see those as I am grateful to the wonderful participants for being so admirably open to sharing them.
There are a few other people who I’d be remiss if I didn’t publicly express gratitude to. Without Alex Good, I would have no final project to present—he is a dear friend who helped me more than any one person should be expected to, with everything from general code guidance to helping crack particularly nasty development issues. Miranda Mulligan jumped in with superb project management at crucial moments; Kevin Walker and the entire IED department of the Royal College of Art provided a thriving community as well as resources and studio space; Sheiva Rezvani gave UX guidance later in the process; and my wonderful sister Chioma constantly gave valuable narrative input along the way. And of course, Fulbright, IIE, and National Geographic were the ones responsible for this entire opportunity.
And I’ll reiterate my thanks to the participants one more time, because this project would have been absolutely nothing without them. It isn’t easy to agree to give a stranger your mobile data, and then wait for months to see what the output of that handover would be. The participants I worked with are interesting and magnetic, and the stories their data tell come nothing close to the experience of getting to meet all of them.
As my time here draws to a close, I want to draw your attention to the brilliant group of fellows who have already begun to populate this blog with stories. I hope that you’ll follow along with the interesting topics that they’ll be diving into this year. While they’ll be embarking on some exciting journeys, I’ll also be moving on to new and exciting projects of my own. I’m already working on a report about crowdsourced data with a talented team over at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Journalism, and in the fall I’ll be back in New York as a Data & Society fellow, working with researchers, artists, and communities to create datasets around difficult-to-quantity issues like harassment and discrimination. I’ll be busy, but still just as open to contact. You can follow along with my work on my website or on Twitter.
Thanks to those of you who followed along with the blogposts over the year, and thanks to all of you for your support (and for reading this far!).
Without further ado, here’s Pathways: nationalgeographic.com/pathways