HDCC 208O: Critical Data Modeling

August 31, 2020
16 weeks


Jessica H. Lu
Associate Director


0111 Prince Frederick Hall   View map


Sophomore Course

In human computing, a “model” is a representation of something for the purpose of study. We learn from graphs, charts, two- and three-dimensional replicas, and other representations that capture the dynamic aspects of an event, an experience, a phenomenon—like which areas of the country are most densely populated, which demographic groups support a particular political candidate, which tools and platforms people use to connect or find love, or the creeping outbreak of a global pandemic. While models are immensely helpful in representing aspects of human life, they are also tools of interpretation, manipulation, and argumentation. Models conceal as much as they reveal.

This course takes both a creative and critical approach to modeling, inviting you to consider how human designers build models that do not merely represent facts but present arguments. Thinking beyond numerical data, we will look to understand how historical and contemporary models (e.g. archives, narratives, artifacts, and social media) are leveraged to tell a particular story, while minimizing, silencing, or erasing others. From this critical standpoint, you will be equipped to think creatively about modeling non-numerical data—or playing with or remixing numerical data in novel ways. Together, we will learn and practice four different methods of critical data modeling: text encoding, data tables/databasing, data visualization, and data mapping. This course will further introduce you to a suite of flexible tools (including AirTable, ARCGis, Cytoscape, DocNow, Gephi, Tableau, and XPath) to help you design models that engage complex questions. How does an idea travel across time and space? How does a particular style or genre of music come into being? What are the rhetorical contours of an argument or conversation? What physical or geographic shape does a community or culture take? How can you illustrate the energy, engagement, or evolution of a social movement?

You will apply these critical approaches to data modeling to design and build a robust model of your own that captures a historical or contemporary phenomenon of your choice. Your final project will not only showcase new or advanced skills in data analysis and computing, but also offer a meaningful argument about the past, present, or future of human life—and how critical model design can envision or petition for a better world.