The collision of data and art: Jessica Bellamy’s Tuesday Talk

On Dec. 1, students across numerous disciplines attended a Tuesday Talk hosted by the Mazmanian Art Gallery, featuring data equity pioneer, abolitionist, and Adobe Creative Residence alumna, Jessica Bellamy.

Bellamy came to the audience from Louisville, Kentucky – a co-principal investigator at the Root Cause Research Center. She is also a research analyst, a designer, and a community organizer who, in 2015, founded the Grassroots Information Design Studio (GRIDS).

She has been featured in publications such as Forbes, Creative Mornings, and Communication Arts Magazine.

Bellamy began her talk asking a question – “What is data?

“Data is, essentially, facts,” Bellamy said, quoting a definition from Our Data Bodies, an organization. “They’re details, they’re statistics, they’re any type of information that’s collected together for reference or analysis. … Data can be many different things. It can be digital, personal, interpersonal. It can be collected by us or from us, provided to us from companies, or taken from us by companies.”

She added, “Data can be used to make decisions about us, to tell our stories, or even connect us to something or someone’s service, and it can even criminalize us. Data and how we use it and understand it is vast.”

Afterwards, she put a spotlight on the work of Yeshimabeit Milner, who is a co-founder of Data for Black Lives, an annual conference that happens at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Bellamy said, “She is one of the biggest advocates for getting rid of big data. She is the type of person [to be] working in D.C., working with congressional staff members, talking about data, talking about all of these ways that our lives are being dissolved by data, by math datasets, and how those math datasets determine our risks and worthiness for receiving loans, for getting jobs, for so many points of access that are hidden to us, because companies are able to buy into these data systems, so they can evaluate the people that they’re working with.”

With Milner’s work in mind, the topic of big data policing came up – the process where companies and governmental bodies utilize big data, either to incriminate people, or hold them back from finding work, obtaining government assistance, or make their lives more “difficult.”

She went into the art of “data storytelling” and how it ties into social movements, such as the Black Lives Matter Movement from the past few years, which reached a new peak, this past summer.

“It’s just really important to start thinking about that when we start to talk about data storytelling,” Bellamy said. “Because data, in itself, is complex and storytelling, in itself, is complex. So, these two things together can form information design. It can form data journalism [and all] these different facets of data storytelling.

“We have to be very mindful of how we use it and understand that the data that we use is not without the weight and baggage that it carried for years. The great thing about data storytelling today is that more folks are using it,” she added.

She said, “Let’s be real – we’re in a time where so many people have been voiceless for so long. Not that those concerns didn’t exist, not that these issues weren’t present prior to this moment, but these compounding crises have made folks more desperate to be heard. 

Bellamy mentioned how “now is the time” for data storytelling to be on the rise. She notes that “yesterday was also a good time,” but “now is just as important.”

In this discussion and explanation of the impact of data storytelling, Bellamy made reference, and provided a spotlight to Natasha Iskander, a professor from New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, and Tamika Lewis, “one of the folks” and a data storyteller for Our Data Bodies with a mission to “dismantle capitalism in all of its various currencies.”

Talking about her own projects, Bellamy informed the audience of her work with the Root Cause Research Center, and how she ended up getting a Creative Residency with Adobe Systems.

“[The Root Cause Research Center] is an organization that me and a colleague started earlier in the year,” Bellamy said. “It took us a good chunk of last year to decide the framework of the Root Cause Research Center. We knew we wanted to build an organization that had shared power amongst its members. … We were building that framework so that it could be as equitable and just as possible.”

The mission of the Root Cause Research Center is focused on “unearthing the whole story around issues, around different concerns that are voiced from the community.” As they are a “100% grassroots-led” organization, they work closely with “movement folks,” not only in their city, but around their state and around the country at large. 

This explanation of the group also made mention of Josh Poe – an urban planner and community organizer, who is well-known as a data activist in Louisville.

“I have a very non-traditional approach to design and data storytelling, mainly because of my background as a community organizer, as a person who has been working in this field for a while,” Bellamy said.

She added, “I’m from a historically Black neighborhood in Kentucky – it’s actually the oldest historically Black neighborhood in our state. It’s called Smoketown, and it was one of the few places that Black people were allowed to live after the Civil War.

“This is a community that had to build a lot of its own [property], but they did not own any of the property. It was years before a Black person owned a building, outside of, maybe, a residential building in the neighborhood where I grew up. … Folks leaned on each other – people had to, because there really wasn’t any other source other than each other in this space,” Bellamy said.

Bellamy took this time to introduce viewers to her family, as well as some key places in the Smoketown area, providing context for her work for Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.

“We [Kentuckians for the Commonwealth] decided to get together to really try to do something about this issue [of gentrification in the area after the destruction of the Sheppard’s Square residential housing],” Bellamy said. 

She added, “We realized that development coming into this neighborhood can be a positive thing, but it’s only a positive thing when residents are able to still remain and benefit from the changes that are happening in their neighborhood.”

From there, Bellamy and her team began working on a 55-question survey to hand out to residents of the area and asked them about the things they wanted to see in the neighborhood. With the responses they got, they started taking data with the goal of getting it “into policymaker hands.

“We wanted to create a report that would not just sit on a shelf,” said Bellamy. 

With that goal in mind, Bellamy used her graphic design degree talents and got to work, making the data look presentable and appealing to the policymakers she wanted to show it to, despite only having “one weekend” to do it all. 

She said, “When we released it, of course we put it in the hands of our initial target audience, which, of course, were the policymakers and the developers. We also put it in the hands of the residents.

“Us creating this report struck up such a buzz within our local newspaper that the council member realized that a lot of what was in the report – at least some sections – were criticisms of him, specifically. It forced him to come to a political forum in our neighborhood,” she added.

She noted how the council member kept deflecting questions at this forum, stating that he “needed more data” to prove that a specific problem was actually an issue in their neighborhood. 

Bellamy said, “There was a point, though, where someone said, ‘Actually, it says right here in the report…’ and everyone was just, like, ‘What?!’ And then, they [the policymakers and council members] opened the report and the whole conversation changed in the room!

“He [the council member] had no ability to refute the depths of these problems, the causes that have been pointed out, these different layers to these issues that people have been dealing with for decades. … I felt that I created a weapon – the whole tide had turned. This is what I wanted to do,” she said.

With this impactful “performance,” Bellamy got noticed by Adobe Systems and got placed under their Creative Residency program in 2017, proving that infographics can be used as “weapons” for the common good.

You can look at more of Bellamy’s works at www.jessicabellamy.com, as well as any work pertaining to the Root Cause Research Center at www.rootcauseresearch.org.