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Urban Studies Professor Explores Dynamism of Human Patterns

  • Joelle Carson
  • MIT Spectrum

"I think any city planner would say that movement is essential to the work that they do—transportation, the movement of people through the city, but also the change of movement of people over time, and how cities can change to address that,” says Sarah Williams MCP ’05, the Norman B. and Muriel Leventhal Professor in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and director of the Civic Data Design Lab (CDDL), which works to understand data for public good through creative visualizations and reports.

“We live in dynamic, moving places, and the data are always moving, too,” she says. “It’s important to make sure the algorithms and predictive models that we make account for the dynamism of human patterns.”

People move across the globe for a number of reasons. In 2021, the CDDL co-authored Charting a New Regional Course of Action: The Complex Motivations and Costs of Central American Migration, a comprehensive report about patterns in migration from Central America. The CDDL interviewed nearly 5,000 households for the project, which also spurred an interactive online report and a multifaceted artistic exhibition called DISTANCE UNKNOWN that premiered at the 2022 United Nations World Food Programme executive board meeting in Rome. The exhibition received a Responsible Disrupter Award from Metropolis Magazine and will appear at the 2023 Venice Biennale.

A striking component of DISTANCE UNKNOWN is Motivational Tapestry, a 15-by-8-foot installation woven from 5,000 bills of currency representing the migrants interviewed for the report—a significant percentage of whom cited economic distress as their reason for migrating to the United States. Viewers are encouraged to take a piece of the tapestry and scan it at a touch-screen station, where the story of that migrant appears.

“We can forget that those points on a chart or map represent people who have hopes and dreams who, in this case, don’t have the money they need to live. Remembering that can connect you to the human situation more deeply,” says Williams. “But a point on a graph on the chart is also very effective to another group of people. So we do the traditional reports as well as the visualizations because we know that different ways of taking in information are important.”

We can forget that those points on a chart or map represent people who have hopes and dreams who, in this case, don’t have the money they need to live. Remembering that can connect you to the human situation more deeply.

That marriage of data and artistic design is central to the CDDL’s mission. The lab is taking on more migration-centric projects in other parts of the world, including West Africa and Venezuela. “We will likely see large populations moving into cities as agricultural land becomes unusable due to issues of climate change in some of these regions,” Williams says. “Migrants are typically seeking a better economic lifestyle, but often their economic losses are due to climate change as well as violence and insecurity within the region in which they live. Our goal is not necessarily only to encourage migration but to identify the problems that lead to it so they can be addressed.”

The data gathered for the project, which includes responses to more than 100 questions on topics beyond economics, feature prominently in a new Common Ground course offering from the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing. Williams co-teaches the course, Interactive Data Visualization and Society, with Arvind Satyanarayan, associate professor of computer science, and Catherine D’Ignazio SM ’14, the Sherman Fairchild Career Development Professor and associate professor of urban studies and planning. “This approach is a great example of how to bring data and design together to tell important stories about society,” Williams says.

The timing was right to bring about dramatic results: in November 2021, 33 senators made recommendations to the White House to create more legal pathways for Central American migrants, citing the CDDL’s study. In June 2022, the Biden administration did just that.

The in-person element of DISTANCE UNKNOWN at the World Food Programme was a striking aspect of the project; Williams recalls powerful reactions from ambassadors at the Rome exhibition, leading to more thoughtful, empathetic, and productive discussions among them.

“When someone receives a policy report or academic paper, it can be easy to push it aside,” says Williams. “Viewing the exhibition in person can allow people to open their eyes to a problem from another vantage point.”

This story was originally published in the spring 2023 issue of MIT Spectrum

Photo of Motivational Tapestry courtesy of Civic Data Design Lab