Making of a student’s project: Katya Fialkova

As I mentioned on a previous post, the final project of last semester’s Information Design class was a story about one’s block.

Katya Fialkova took an activist journalist approach. Since I thought that her process, her challenges, her insight and her result were so interesting, I asked her to write a making-of post of her project. Here’s her account:

The assignment was to make an infographic about the block we live on. At the time, I was visiting my grandmother on a quiet, residential street in Washington Heights with no commercial businesses (the street, incidentally, where I had grown up).

She had been having problems with the landlord for some time. The Ohebshaloms (or Shaloms), a well-known landlord family with about 100 properties in New York City, are notorious among tenants-rights activists.

I wanted to see if they neglected their buildings more than other landlords. So first:
— how many buildings in the neighborhood are owned by the family,
— how they compare to other buildings in number of building violations, complaints to the HPD…

The story in the data

I scoured the city’s Department of Buildings and HPD websites, and collected data about each building.

The analysis expanded beyond the block to include many buildings in the immediate neighborhood. My hypothesis seemed correct: buildings owned by the Shalom family had on average more violations, more serious violations, and more complaints than other buildings in the neighborhood. In addition, in every Shalom-owned buildings with serious building violations, the violations occurred after the Shaloms bought the building.

Non Shalom-owned buildings had on average 1.4 serious violations per building, while Shalom-owned buildings had 7.6 on average. Serious violations are Class 1 and 2, Class 1 being immediately hazardous and life threatening.

My grandma’s apartment was often cold when I would visit her last winter. She would heat water in a kettle to take a shower, and had a small electric space heater, which raised her electric bill. I used the number of HPD complaints referencing no heat or hot water to count how many days each building had without heat or hot water in winter.

The struggles in the visualization

I first thought of using a series of bar charts (showing the number of days without heat for each building, for example), and then choropleth maps, (a building that had no days without heat would get a very light fill, one with many days without heat would get a more intense color)

To produce the maps, and since I had no access to ArcGIS, I tried to learn Quantum GIS, an open source mapping application, but I couldn’t make it work the way I wanted. I spent an afternoon at my classmate Kazue Anan’s office in Downtown Manhattan. She showed me how she uses ArcGIS. We made several gradient maps and exported them into Adobe Illustrator files so that I could work on them. (To the right, an early draft of a choropleth map showing complaints to HPD. Shalom-owned buildings outlined in a weird green.)

I used Adobe Illustrator to customize the maps and add annotation. Xaquín made some suggestions (a thinner outline here, a different color there). It was slowly coming together.

The humans in the story

Xaquín mentioned that it would be good to tell the stories of the people who live in these buildings, and to record audio of their stories. It would help the viewer to establish an emotional connection with the tenants and the conditions they live in. It would translate the ‘number of building violations’ into a person’s story of what it is like to live in building that is being neglected. I set out to find people in the buildings to interview.

This proved difficult. I knew one of my grandma’s neighbors, but no one in any of the other buildings owned by the Shaloms. It seemed as if many were afraid to speak out, even if I didn’t use their real names.

One couple printed out open letters to the management company and placed copies under everyone’s doors. They mentioned a list of grievances and stated that if they weren’t addressed they would sue.  They seemed like good candidates for an interview, so I called them. I spoke to the wife, and she was suspicious of my motives, saying that perhaps I worked for the landlord. She mentioned many of the problems she had with the landlord, but didn’t want to be recorded.

Since I couldn’t reach anyone else, I gave up on the interviews, and decided to incorporate more of my grandma’s story, to make the graphic more personal.

He also suggested I could add photographs of the buildings. The photos would make it more concrete and personal. I spent a day taking photos and stitching them together in Photoshop.

The change in the perspective

As the project neared completion, I had a nagging feeling that it was missing something, that it wasn’t telling the story well. After hours of tweaking, I couldn’t wait to be done with it.

A week before the project was due I realized that a series of maps wasn’t the right visual device for the story. It didn’t matter where each building was, there was no geographic patterns to discover. So I decided to start the visualization from scratch. Histograms, which show distribution, could clearly show just how much worse the Shalom buildings were.

Back to Illustrator. I charted how many buildings had certain number of violations.

This shows that my grandma’s building had 16 building violations on file the City’s DOB (Dept of Buildings). If there weren’t any buildings that had a certain number of violations, I skipped that number on the chart.

I grouped the data.

The histograms make it easy to see that the Shalom buildings were almost always all the way to the right (i.e. they had more violations, more complaints, more days without heat.)

I added annotation to help tell the story, provide context and extrapolate from the data.

And so finally, the project was finished… until Xaquín suggested I make an interactive piece.

If the project finally becomes an interactive, I’ll feature it here. But for now, here’s the final static version of Katya’s project. (She actually kept working on it after the classes were over and the grades set — an inspiring display of passion for the project.)