How do we introduce data visualisation in an engaging and approachable way for communities of young women? What would it look like to learn code as a medium for art and creative storytelling? In this interview, Arran Ridley sat down with Joanne Amarisa, founder of the Data Garden Project, a growing resource and learning community for young people to share data-driven stories about their lives using creative coding.
Can you introduce yourself, Jo?
Of course! My name’s Jo, and I’m a designer and writer based in Melbourne, Australia, originally from Indonesia. I completed my studies in design at RMIT University here in Melbourne, and since then my passion has been towards furthering storytelling, technology, and design for education and community. Ultimately, it has led me to start and build the Data Garden Project!
What is the Data Garden Project? Can you tell me more about it?
The Data Garden Project (DGP) is a free resource and learning community that introduces young people to data visualisation and creative coding. It explores using data and code as a storytelling medium—to share data-inspired stories about your own life with your peers or loved ones.
The idea for the DGP came as a Capstone graduation project when I was finishing my design degree. I took a creative coding unit during my final year where I created a data viz artwork of WhatsApp conversations between my mother and I while we were separated during lockdown—visualised in a garden metaphor. I titled it A Garden of my Mother’s Concerns.
I was intrigued by how the creative meets the generative in the process of coding, but also how data and code can be used to convey meaningful, personal stories that we can share with others. So I decided I wanted to pass on this same experience and learning opportunity to others—especially fellow girls or young women from non-computing backgrounds, like me!—to learn creative coding with me as a new way of visualising data stories.
That’s an interesting concept. How exactly do you do that?
A big precedent or inspiration for the project is Dear Data, created by Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec, a year-long analogue “data journaling” project as a way of sharing, with each other, data stories from their own lives through sketches on a postcard. Replacing pencil drawings with p5.js canvases, our project uses coding as the storytelling medium. I guess you can say it’s part coding class, part data “treasure hunt”, and part collective journaling activity.
What has the journey been like for the project?
We were awarded our first creative grant from the Blackbird Foundation,a VC based in Sydney, in August 2021. When I got accepted into the grant program, I was part of a design student club at my university, and I did a call-out on Facebook asking if anyone would be interested in joining me on this “mission”—which at the time had not taken any form!
Luckily, I met four wonderful peers and recruited them as my first team, and we quickly became dear friends. We took to Discord and “beta-tested” the Data Garden learning material by running two to three “Team Tutorial” sessions every week, where I would tutor them and we would go through each module and exercise via a group video call.
Our six modules combine the basics of creative coding with the basic principles of data storytelling. By the end of the modules, each student creates a final data-driven art project made with p5.js, representing a story or theme of their choosing. At the end, it felt like a breakthrough. One of our team members, Kelly, created a flower grid visualising the songs she listened to during lockdown. I thought, Whoa. The Data Garden Project works!
In 2022, I began to record each module as bite-sized tutorials, which now exist on our YouTube channel. It helped us gather some more audience around our mission, which was to make creative coding and data visualisation accessible and enjoyable.
The community grew in our social media and Discord—we recruited new team members and hosted ‘Study Spaces’ on the weekends, where we would open a room on Discord for an hour, and people could come, relax, chat, or use the space to do some work. We also began hosting a few online workshops on Miro. In March 2023, we hosted our first in-person creative coding workshop in partnership with RMIT University, and it was a blast.
In June 2023, we got accepted into the Processing Foundation Fellowship Program, which felt surreal. With the help of the fellowship, we were able to work on creating an educational resource and guidebook not just for students, but also for educators to take and adapt the Data Garden material to their own classrooms and communities. The free learning resource comprises six modules, combining the basics of creative coding, data visualisation, and exercises on building narratives and stories woven with data. Its purpose is to guide young people—with a focus on young girls and women—to create their first-ever data-driven interactive artwork using code.
What was the need? How did the Data Garden mission come about?
I initially learned creative coding in 2020, and, so, due to the state of the world, I had to adopt this brand-new tool in isolation. I’m grateful for my lecturer at the time, Karen Ann Donnachie (now a mentor to the DGP), who provided us with a warm, supportive learning environment even while remote—especially since learning to code is such a big, daunting task. That played such a big role, so that was the first thing I wanted to pass forward: a space that was warm, collaborative, and encouraging. The need, firstly, was to create an environment that takes the loneliness out of learning.
Often, I felt that I don’t always find this in online coding classes or data bootcamps. Where there’s a lack of community and a sense of play or peer-to-peer support, you embark on an individual upskilling pathway with the mindset that the world is your competition. As best as we can, we want the DGP to offer more of a playground or collective sandbox for everyone to learn, fail, test, win, and try again together, with a peer-to-peer learning approach rather than instructor-to-class. What one learns, everyone learns.
The second need was to demystify gender biases around STEM. We know statistically that women comprise only a little over 30% of the STEM workforce. Moreover, girls and young women are also outnumbered in STEM-related majors in school or college and are less likely to pursue them than their male peers. These gaps are further aggregated in communities where the infrastructure for technology is lacking.
The overly militarised and commodified end products of technology and software can also add to this bias—when we think of science, subconsciously, we may think of weaponry, vehicles, video games, the rise of AI, which are traditionally coded as masculine and can feel disconnected from practices that feel arts-based, grassroots, or close to a community.
Through the Data Garden, we wanted to explore coding as if it were a fun scrapbooking or art activity that you can do after school, engaging communities of women to give that sense of belonging, and to show that this is a space for them, too. We turn software into something crafts and knowledge-based, lowering the barrier while providing an avenue for connection and vulnerability through story-sharing, not just upskilling.
And the Data Garden Project is now community-focused, is that right?
Yes! We host our community on Discord as a central hub. We host online workshops using Miro, the team does our brainstorming sessions here, or sometimes we like to open a one-hour Study Space on a weekend where we put on lo-fi music, chill, and just work on our own things in the company of others. Most of us are based in the Asia-Pacific, but as the Discord community grew, there was also a time when we opened multiple Study Spaces to accommodate those in Europe or the US.
We also publish much of our content (such as modules, project updates, or inspiration) on Instagram and YouTube. One of the things we did on YouTube earlier this year was host Sharing Sessions, where we sit down and do Q&As with data viz or creative coding practitioners in the field, who share about their work and career journeys.
The Data Garden Project challenged my notion that dataviz is always clean-cut and clinical as seen in most scientific publications, but turns out it doesn’t have to be that way!
—Septia, a member of the DGP
What are some things you noticed or learned while you were growing the Data Garden?
It was a big surprise to me to see community members trickling in from different parts of the world. At first it started with close circles of peers in Australia and Indonesia who were interested in what we were doing. All of a sudden we saw introductions from the UK, Philippines, USA, India, Mexico, Peru… I thought, We’ve never even been there!
At our core, we’re more of an international “study club” that learns creative coding and dataviz together. We partner with educational organisations or institutions, but we aren’t representative of any specific one. And I think that has kept the project approachable, malleable, and accessible for people to enter into and rally behind.
I was also nervous at first about starting the initiative with no computer science credentials (unless we count self-taught through p5.js YouTube tutorials). However, it was a delight to learn that our offering of community, storytelling, and creativity is what draws people into the DGP. This shed a lot of pressure from having to be like a coding course or bootcamp, and gave us more confidence to play to our strengths.
Speaking of confidence, that’s probably the biggest, most heart-moving thing I’ve seen happen since starting the DGP. We have team members scattered across a few different pockets of the globe. (It’s quite something to have to arrange meeting times between four or five different time zones!) When our Melbourne team finished our first offline workshop this year in March, a couple of members who were based in Jakarta started shooting their hands up: We can maybe do a similar workshop like this here! A team member based in the US also said: I found a space that can be great for a Data Garden workshop. Maybe I can run one here?
Moments like these, to me, are small seeds of potential for what the project could be. Not just for us to be planting seeds and growing our own little garden, but for it to take root and grow someplace else, adapt to new communities and be implemented in different ways. The baton gets passed on, and that’s what I’m hoping our future consists of. That it lasts far beyond us.
Speaking of the future, what are your future plans for the Data Garden Project?
Right now, it’s about making sure that this project’s legacy lives on. We created our guidebook resource on Notion earlier this year, and I’m very excited for it to be an evergreen resource for computer science educators and creative educators in all parts of the world.
The resource houses our six learning modules, combining written guides and our YouTube video tutorials. It includes a mix of coding challenges, storytelling or writing homeworks, simple data visualisation concepts and examples, and workshop or activity ideas for the classroom. For educators, we also include slides or materials for class settings, as well as tips on how to facilitate a workshop drawn from the Data Garden.
I like to say that the resource is complete, but will always be iterative. There are so many ways educators can enrich it—either from a creative coding or a data visualisation perspective. For instance, we can discuss deeper about the level of data literacy that’s needed to engage in the Data Garden course. In Module 4, we explore how to gather and parse data, and there’s a section there about “Treating Data with Care”, where we are invited to discuss biases or incompleteness in data, and educate about the power dynamics in data analysis and visualization.
In 2024, I would be excited to see how the Data Garden Project can be implemented in a classroom cohort. There’s a lot more space to build community within the timespan of a semester, a summer camp, or a curriculum.
Last, but not least, we also have an exciting summer workshop in collaboration with MPavilion Melbourne this coming February—a beautiful architectural space that sits just south of Melbourne’s CBD. We’re calling it the Data Stitching & Storytelling workshop. Like the name suggests, we will explore how to visualise nature and our surroundings using cross-stitching or embroidery, bringing back tactility and crafts as a way of communicating data and introducing computational thinking, so we’re very excited about that.
What do you think an initiative like the Data Garden Project enables?
In our first Team Tutorial sessions, some of my favourite moments were when my peers would show me and the team the coding projects they made over the weekend, going into the process of how they made it and teaching the team how to create the same.
With every cohort, there’s always the expectant hope to see our learners become teachers in their own right. When we talk about this garden taking root and growing elsewhere, it’s really about young people being able to lead, and share their knowledge through community-led learning.
Whether that’s sharing about their finished projects on socials, speaking about their work, explaining their processes, and—once they’re ready and willing—passing that knowledge forward, either through creating new learning content with us or running workshops or after-school DGP clubs on their own. I imagine it as this “mitosis” of learning, and I hope to see more of it in the near future.
Arshi, a member of our community from Kolkata, for example, is in the process of building new YouTube tutorials for us, this time a crash course on Tableau, drawing from her professional experience in analytics. We’ll also be looking at ways to equip our team more to facilitate workshops and share Data Garden material. Diversifying our learning content and giving our community the open space to experiment in those ways will be exciting.
That’s splendid. Lastly, where can we find you?
If you would like to partner with us and chat about our resource or community, we’d love to be in touch. You can reach us at email@example.com and we’re always open to collaborate.
- Instagram: @thedatagardenproject
- Youtube: @datagardenproject
- Discord: bit.ly/JoinDataGarden
- Access our resource: bit.ly/DataGardenGuide
- Website (to see students’ works and read about our team): datagardenproject.com
Want to get involved? We are currently seeking teachers or education partners who would like to collaborate with the Data Garden Project to pilot this resource inside their classroom or community, or adapt it to their existing lesson plan for the new school term. Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.