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How Two Pen Pals Learned About Each Other Through Data Mapping

A data-viz experiment in a year’s worth of oversharing.

David Silverberg

David Silverberg

Image: Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec

When was the last time you counted every time you swore in a week? Or how often someone touched you, whether by accident or intimately? Have you ever listed how many times you complained?

The above exercises were just three examples from a fascinating data-mapping project from two pen pals, Giorgia Lupi in New York and Stefanie Posavec in London. They both work in the data-visualization field but for a lark they decided to exchange hand-drawn postcards to each other mapping a new data set every week. One week they studied their spending habits, another week all the smells infiltrating their noses. Each illustration they exchanged included a code to help the other decipher what each notation or color represented.

A postcard from the project. Image: Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec

This passion project that began in the summer of 2014 has now culminated in the book Dear Data (available September 6) displaying every postcard and additional notes about the data accumulated that week.

On what motivated them to begin the project: "We thought it would be an opportunity to experiment and test new visual challenges apart from what our day jobs gave us," said Posavec in an interview.

Lupi said she appreciated moving away from her digitization of data maps by hand-illustrating the postcards, in a challenging method that she had never encountered before.

"As the Design Director of my own company, it's important to come back to design, to keep my eye on creating things," she added.

What Lupi and Posavec did is nothing short of a testament to this era of oversharing, whether in person or via social media. We no longer bat an eye when someone writes down every book they've ever read and posts the exhaustive list on Facebook. But when you pore through Dear Data, you find a more revealing angle of this peep culture, to quote author Hal Niedzviecki: we are so overwhelmed with Big Data it's endearing to learn about someone via Slow Data. Let's get to know each other beyond the media we consume.

The more intriguing data-visualizations in the book look at nuances in our lives we experience but rarely notice. Lupi and Posavec compiled every instance they smiled or were smiled at, and in another week laid out info-maps of the various emotions they experienced in a week. They even offer context to each, say, smile, plotting out where and in what instance that smile was exchanged.

Taking part in this project offered the authors new insights into their own behaviours. During the week of mapping their many complaints, Posavec noticed "how many complaints were unnecessary. You think different about yourself when you, well, count yourself doing things many times."

Posavec also found the postcards to be "intimate data sets", going on to say, "I would share things with Giorgia I would never share with any of my friends in London."

Lupi echoes her friend: "After a year of exchanging data, I felt like we knew each other better than those who live close by to us."

Such an information-reach year could inspire others to better calculate aspects of their lives they never thought to tabulate, with the goal of seeing patterns and perhaps fine-tuning negative behavior. And better yet, illustrating our life's data by hand can allow us to slow down and invigorate our creative selves beyond the digital.