More Than Numbers

Information and Visualization students take data detailing the devastating change of population in the Łódź Ghetto in Poland during the Holocaust to make "Liquidation," a visual display currently at the US Holocaust Museum.

"Liquidation," a visual display currently at the US Holocaust Museum that details the change of population in the Łódź Ghetto in Poland during the Holocaust.

When Gillian McCallion ’17 and Sarah Maravetz ’17 (Information Visualization M.P.S) were given a set of data detailing the devastating change of population in the Łódź Ghetto in Poland during the Holocaust, they knew it came with a great sense of responsibility. 

 The information spoke to something important — and devastating. Almost 200,000 Jews, more than a third of the city's population, were systematically rounded up for forced labor, replete with beatings and killings on the street, denied access to food and ultimately, sent to the death camps.

 “There are so many lives that just ended and no one knows what happened to those people,” McCallion said. "It wasn’t just about presenting the data — our goal was to communicate the magnitude of the horrors and also, to some extent, to memorialize the individuals who were murdered.”

 For the recent graduates, data visualization is about so much more than the numbers involved.

 It’s a chance to communicate their personal reaction to the data, to turn it into something that’s meaningful and to help an audience connect to it on an emotional level, McCallion, who is the Creative Director at the International Youth Foundation, said.  

 “[Data visualization] is another way to communicate with people — communicate in a wider view,” Maravetz, the associate director of Data Analytics at Northeastern University Khoury College of Computer Sciences, added. “It’s another language to speak to people.” 

 This approach to data is what is at the heart of the MPS on Information Visualization program (now Information and Data Visualization), and is what intrigued the staff at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum to work with the students for their Residency hackathon project.

 "Liquidation," which will opened to the public on June 28 and runs through July 31 is the visual display that will show the dramatic population change in the Łódź Ghetto. The installation will use LED lights within acrylic tubing to visually communicate the population change from 1940 through 1945, where numbers were reduced to just several hundred. 

 While students in the program at MICA, McCallion and Maravetz designed a small-scale version of the installation after receiving the Łódź Ghetto data set from the museum. During the 4-day Residency hackathon, the students merged their ideas and into a final design because both students had similar approaches.

 The finalized design of Liquidation was presented to staff at the museum, and the museum's Special Projects and exhibition staff proposed to build a full-scale version as part of the museum's exploration of how museum visitors interact with information visualization. The team then worked with the students as consultants on the full-scale version, which will be displayed in the museum's second floor special exhibits space.

 Heather Bradbury, former Open Studies Graduate Program Director for the Business of Art and Design (M.P.S.) and Information and Data Visualization (M.P.S.), said Maravetz and McCallion’s work with the Holocaust data was during their Residency 2 course throughout which students worked through the information, did additional research and submitted a project proposal at the end of class. Bradbury said the data was something the museum had, but hadn’t ever used before.

 The MPS in Information and Data Visualization is an online graduate degree focused on learning and applying professional skills and knowledge in an area of practice, and is a “unique and emerging field,” Bradbury said. The program content is designed to develop design, analytical, problem-solving, and storytelling skills, knowledge, strategies, and practices in order to create powerful, data and information-driven visual narratives. 

 For the museum, this type of installation is a test exhibition and a potential direction to head in for other displays, Bradbury said. And it’s a direction many industries are heading in.

 “We are inherently moving more and more toward visual and technology-based communication,” she said.

 And MICA’s program is so key because it helps mold students who can understand not only the data, but how to visually communicate it as well, Bradbury said. It layers a lot of different skills, and is an example of the College’s focus on interdisciplinary education, she added.

 “It’s storytelling. At the very core of it, it’s how do you build a story?” Bradbury said.

 For McCallion, working with the data set was a challenge, because the focus was less on what was there, and more on what was missing. And the format in which the information is displayed, she said, is just extremely impactful. The lights hang down from the ceiling, she said and begin tremendously bright before fading away to almost nothing. 

 Maravetz agreed that the installation will be more engaging than if a person were to just look at the data set in text, in what is sometimes a more typical medium at a museum.

 “This exhibit is going to be a little more emotional,” she said, adding “It’s meant to evoke a feeling."