digitalSTS Workshop: Designing Data Narratives at the Arnold Arboretum

metaLAB(at)Harvard is hosting the second digitalSTS workshop at the Arnold Arboretum on June 27-28. We will explore the potential of the “data narrative” as a hybrid genre for the expression of Science, Technology and Society (STS) scholarship. The design of data narratives is a new-media practice that merges distinct cultural forms for organizing knowledge: the database and the narrative. Narratives are linear, sequential, and animated by actors; databases, by contrast, are non-linear, random-access, and driven by algorithms. Data narratives operate in-between, threading visualized data through verbal exposition to produce hybrid timelines, maps, models, animations, and interactive texts. In this context, design can be thought of as the synthetic work of layering disparate ways of knowing. Indeed, as hybrids that leverage both database and narrative structures, data narratives bring the epistemic worlds of science and the humanities together in new configurations useful for telling grounded stories in a form likely to have impact both in scholarly discourse and in broader audiences beyond academe. We see the Arboretum as an ideal context to explore such use of design for STS scholarship and the public understanding of science.

As expressed at its founding in 1872 by director Charles Sprague Sargent, the Arboretum would be many places in one: a research station, a horticultural grounds, a forestry lab. It would also serve as an educational establishment uniquely positioned for what he suggestively called “object teaching.” The woody plants, systematically organized and delicately cultivated, would convey natural history in the flesh, in a splendid setting accessible by urban audiences, lying at the ready for use by diverse experts and plant lovers.

Since the late nineteenth century, of course, these desiderata have been reorganized by a shifting set of norms, practices, and social configurations—not only in plant science and ecology, but in landscape design, higher education, and the city itself. This dynamic interposition of qualities and forces—ecological, social, aesthetic, and pedagogical—has left its traces in the forms of interaction between the institution, the university, and the city; in the reception of the arboretum by varied audiences; and in the very disposition of plants and other living things in the landscape. In data narratives, we see an opportunity to reflect, interpret, and critique these shifting arrangements, and to reinvent Sargent’s concept of “object teaching” for a networked world.

Team Leaders:
Matthew Battles and Kyle Parry, Harvard University
Carl DiSalvo, Georgia Institute of Technology
Kelly Dobson, Rhode Island School of Design
Hanna Rose Shell, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Daniela Rosner, University of Washington
Sara Wylie, Northeastern University

Organizers:
Yanni Loukissas, Harvard University
Laura Forlano, Illinois Institute of Technology
David Ribes, Georgetown University
Janet Vertesi, Princeton University

Sponsors:
The Arnold Arboretum
The Consortium for the Science of Sociotechnical Systems
in collaboration with the National Science Foundation Digital Societies and Technologies Research Coordination Network
Microsoft Research