Review: “Our Environment” by the Data Science x Design Collective

A highly illustrated book cover sitting on a wooden table with the title "our environment"

Our Environment, the newest installment in the Data Science x Design Collective’s series of anthologies, is a delightful collection of essays, zines, fictional short stories, and reflections on the data-fied world around and inside each of us. With contributions from twenty four individuals in twenty written pieces, the book showcases a wide variety of perspectives that blend to provide a diverse array of insights into the way data builds, persists in, and reflects throughout our world.

The book begins with informative writing, orienting the reader to the state of environmental data and climate issues, which are some of the more straightforward topics addressed in the book. From the start, the focus is on community-building and collective environmental data governance and stewardship. With each subsequent piece, more layers of complexity are added, including philosophical discussions of how data contributes to worldbuilding and calls to action alongside wildfire safety zines and traditional American Indigenous artwork-turned-data exploration.

An open book with the header "data from the rooms" with a page of connected data points on a city map.

As the volume progresses, readers are brought on a journey through data art and speculative fiction, exploring historical pasts through queer and decolonial lenses and imagined futures of data and technology integration without sacrificing humanity, individuality, and environmental balance. It is a challenge to incorporate explanatory writings with creative fiction in the same book without startling or confusing the reader, but the Data Science x Design Collective team executes this beautifully. Once I picked up the book, it was difficult to put down because each standalone piece compelled me to read the next. At times, individual pieces within this section of the anthology could feel slightly heady, but this feeling rarely persisted for long.

Toward the closing of Our Environment, the tone turns again to more straightforward and practical topics, this time with a more actionable bent, including how-tos and tips for advancing the practice of data science and communication. I found that this reemergence into actionable work not only grounded the more cerebral pieces contained in the middle of the book, but also made my reading experience seem purposeful. By the time I read the final piece, I felt equipped with more knowledge than I had before to meet the world of data with confidence and understanding.

An open book containing satellite images of city maps.

The first thing that struck me when I initially flipped through Our Environment was the abundance of colorful visualizations which cover full pages of the book. Each written piece is accompanied by at least one but often many images, from digital data visualizations and data quilts to maps and related photographs. For pieces not directly associated with a specific visualization project, the Data Science x Design team worked with illustrator Noemi De Feo to produce appropriate and eye-catching illustrations. With every turn of the page, more images come into view, providing the reader with plenty of visual aids and inspiration related to each article. I also quickly noticed how useful having footnotes written in a column along the side of the page was as opposed to printing them at the bottom. This design choice allows the note to align horizontally with where it was mentioned in the text, making it more intuitive to read. For both of these aspects, I applaud Barbara Borko, the designer behind the book’s layout.

Beyond the beautiful graphics and ergonomic design, I appreciated how carefully the editors arranged the contributing pieces into a cohesive anthology of work. As discussed above, each piece of writing led the reader to the next, producing a smooth and comfortable reading experience. In addition to ordering the pieces well, the editors also did an excellent job of varying the length and visual weight of each piece. This allowed the reader to feel like the content had a consistent topical flow without becoming bogged down by many long articles or rushed by many short ones.

An open book with the title: Multilingual Data Science: Ten Tips to Translate Science and Tech Content.

Overall, Our Environment by the Data Science x Design Collective is an excellent collection of data-oriented work contemplating our world, how we occupy it, and how data is woven through it. With a focus on community engagement, decolonization, queer resistance, and advocacy, this book provides engaging and diverse perspectives about how to honor history and build futures with data.

Emilia Ruzicka is a data journalist, designer, producer, and storyteller who specializes in health, science, and technology reporting. They are currently pursuing their M.A. in Media, Culture, and Technology at University of Virginia while continuing to work on freelance projects and write their own blog. Outside of data viz, Emilia loves to visit museums, make art, and talk about the USPS. If you have a project proposal, story tips, or want to find out more, visit emiliaruzicka.com.