Alex Hill, data and design coordinator for the city of Detroit’s Health Department, spoke at the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities Tuesday on the importance of contextualizing data

Hill heads Detroitography, a project designed to document how Detroit’s history has changed its geography, economy and society. The project, launched by Hill shortly after he moved to Detroit in 2009, emphasizes how residents tie their identities to the spaces and places where they live.

“When I first moved to the city, I had a lot of questions about where things were and what was going on, so in my free time, I started pulling data and creating my own maps to understand it,” Hill said. “In that process, I was connecting with a lot of other people in Detroit who were making maps and they were creating some great work.”

For Hill, a love of maps started at an early age. As a former Eagle Scout, he said he was curious about understanding his surroundings through his map-making skills.

“I think it’s definitely the boy-scout effect,” he said. “I did a lot with maps and compasses as a kid, so as part of that I’ve really always enjoyed looking at maps to understand what was going on.”

Hill and his collaborators use open-source data, information that is freely available to the public, to create their maps. They combine different aspects of raw data to create intricate visualizations of certain phenomena. Some examples include “Detroit’s Digital Divide,” “Liquor, Parks and Homicide,” and “Detroit Neighborhood Coffee Shop Density.”

“A lot of the ideas for maps come from community conversations where people will have questions about something, and I’ll make a map for it,” Hill said. “I follow a lot of the conversations in urban planning and public health within the city, so I look for how research and data from other cities can be applied to Detroit.”

LSA senior Kyle Monagle, one of the approximately 30 students in attendance for Hill’s presentation, said he was there to satisfy a requirement for a class in the Department of American Culture.

“We’ve been talking a lot about gentrification and pertinent problems the city is dealing with,” Monagle said. “I’m planning on living and working in Detroit after graduation, so I want to learn more about the city, which is why this talk sounded really interesting to me.”

In his presentation, “Giving Data Empathy,” Hill discussed the different ways maps make sense of social, political and economic phenomena. He noted, however, that statistics without context aren’t going to motivate lawmakers, voters or residents to enact change.

Hill said he believes it is necessary to help consumers relate to data on a more personal level. Through Detroitography, he hopes to empower Detroiters by giving them the tools to understand and tell the story of their neighborhoods themselves.

He noted that as part of the project, he organizes mapping workshops in libraries and community centers to help Detroit residents improve their data literacy, saying he believes the repair and preservation of any city must be grounded in the people living there.

“I am always looking for ways to collaborate with other people in the area,” Hill said. “For me, this project made sense because it is a way to keep the conversations about change in the city going.”


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