Drawing with Numbers

On January 20, 2016, CHRGJ hosted a talk by John Emerson on the challenges of data visualization for human rights researchers and advocates. The talk sought to facilitate an interdisciplinary discussion and was organized in the context of a larger research project at CHRGJ mapping the intersection of data visualization and human rights.

After a brief history of visual storytelling and the role it has played in different societies, the speaker discussed data visualization as a tool for mobilizing people, for facilitating analysis, and for making stories more impactful or memorable. Emerson raised issues related to the collection of data and to its representation, with an emphasis on how human rights defenders can apply this knowledge in their work with information design and infographics. Emerson warned of the perils of falsified data and distorted infographics and engaged the audience in a discussion about ethics in data visualization: how far can one go in structuring data in an appealing way before this becomes a manipulation of the original information? And underlying that question, what do we accept as the facts that are worth visualizing, and who do we engage to collect this information?

The feedback from the audience showed the great need for more attention to this issue, and hinted at the extent to which human rights practice stands to be enriched from more engagement with the field of data visualization. For those who could not attend the talk, more information about the project on data visualization and human rights can be found at


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