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Let’s Hear it for the Girls!

Alas, we’ve released another episode of our podcast, Especially Big Data. The episode, Let’s Hear it for the Girls, dives into the many factors contributing to the dearth of women in tech– most of which are not captured in numbers.

There is tons of data on the small distribution of women pursuing computer science degrees or programming careers, but we wanted information on the experiences that are more difficult to quantify; like the number of cases where a team of primarily male developers goes out for brews and forgets to invite their sole female teammate; or the percentage of workplaces where restroom accommodations simply aren’t made for women (this is real!); or the instances where an individual was too afraid to speak up because of the glaring awareness that she (or he) was different from everyone else in the room. Our latest episode dives into the subtle and nearly invisible gestures, mindsets, and structures that make participating in tech more difficult for those who are under-represented.


For this episode we spoke with guests like p5.js creator, Lauren McCarthy, Harvey Mudd president, Maria Klawe, a handful of girls from Akamai’s Girls Who Code chapter in Boston, and our own Leslie Watkins. Olivia also shared tons of insight behind the scenes.

Lauren shared some fascinating stories on how gender influences the ways her peers approach professional opportunities. She also discussed its unexpected impact on the reception of one of her projects.

Next, we untangled two accounts of a single moment that nearly broke the internet. Back at the 2014 Grace Hopper Conference, Maria Klawe refuted comments made by Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, where he essentially said that women who worked hard could trust that the system would reward them. Both the audience and the press went wild at his statement. We’ll hear from Maria, and Leslie– who was sitting in the audience at the time– on what really happened.

To hear more unquantified experiences from badass women in tech, tune in!



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Busted in Numbers

Last week we launched a project with ProPublica that investigated the hundreds of innocent people in Houston, Texas, who have been wrongfully convicted for drug crimes since 2003. You can gain some background on the piece, “Busted,” in Elaine’s recent blog post. Like most of our projects, though, much of the story lives in the details.

99% of drug crimes in Harris County, TX, come by way of a guilty plea bargain–a seemingly innocuous fact until you learn that government crime labs proved the innocence of 14% of the wrongfully convicted before their plea bargains were filed. For whatever reason, the prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges simply never saw or checked the evidence, and innocent defendants were convicted regardless.

The picture becomes grimmer when you learn that the official lab tests– which should be administered prior to any plea bargain– cleared the remaining 86% of innocent people weeks, months, and even years after they pleaded guilty for crimes they did not commit. Some have lived with felony convictions for up to thirteen years. 76% of the innocent still do not know, are too afraid, or do not care to clear their records.

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The demographics of those who were wrongfully convicted is, dishearteningly, just as you would expect. About half were under thirty years old at the time their cases were filed. At an age when most are advancing their education, building the foundation of their careers, or starting families– people like Michael J., Georgeana R., or Jharmeel S. have spent more than a quarter of their lives with wrongful felony convictions. They’ve likely had a hard time finding and holding jobs, securing housing, gaining government benefits, and even voting.

60% of the wrongfully convicted are black, though black people make up less than a quarter of the wider Houston population. And in a city split equally among genders, eight in ten of those with wrongful convictions are men. It comes as no surprise that when surveying the city’s wider population, for every one hundred black women between ages 20 and 39, there are only 88 black men. The phenomenon of “missing black men” by no means excludes Houston.

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So, what exactly causes so many to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit? I would argue the answer lies in an overburdened criminal justice system. 1.2 million people in the U.S. are arrested each year for drug possession. Faulty $2 drug field tests only perpetuate the problem, herding completely innocent people into a broken system. In one 2010 study in Las Vegas, one in three tests were found to generate incorrect results. Though the creators of the tests, the National Bureau of Standards, and the Department of Justice have determined that their results “should not be used for evidential purposes,” police departments around the country have been using the unreliable tests to crack down on drugs.

In an overburdened criminal justice system where too many people in power have too little time, many innocent people are falling through the cracks. The points of failure are not isolated acts of misconduct, but reflect the wider systemic failures among judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and crime labs:

  1. National standards recommend defense lawyers handle no more than 150 cases per year. In 2015, more than 35% of court appointed attorneys in Harris County had more than 150 felony cases. One had 985 cases, 446 of which were felonies. Incentivized to solve cases quickly, defense lawyers often work through plea deals rather than advising their clients to wait for official lab results.
  2. Often pressed for bail and intent on getting out of jail, innocent defendants often plead guilty rather than waiting– indefinitely– for lab results to return.
  3. With 1.2 million drug possession arrests each year, backlogged crime labs can take months or years to determine the presence of illicit substances.
  4. Judges should not permit convictions on plea deals where faulty field tests are the sole evidence.
  5. Even when test errors are discovered, defendants, their attorneys, the prosecutors, and judges rarely receive the memo.

In Houston alone, hundreds of lives have been stunted by wrongful convictions for drug crimes. We have yet to count the numbers across the country.

Visit ProPublica to see the full story.

Poverty isn’t Permanent

We’re excited to announce the latest installment of the Robin Hood Poverty Tracker. About two years ago, we worked with teams at Robin Hood and the Columbia Population Research Center to create a visualization that outlined the complexities of poverty and hardship in New York City. Now, two years later, we’re able to show how the population of New Yorkers experiencing financial disadvantage has changed over time. While many think of poverty as a persistent state of being, the latest visualization shows how New Yorkers of every age, race, gender, and education level move in and out of financial hardship.


The premise of the Poverty Tracker rests on the notion that official poverty measures are wrong. Considering the rising cost of living in different geographic areas, and the wide range of income sources families receive–the rather outdated federal poverty measure doesn’t fully capture the magnitude of disadvantage, particularly for those in New York City. As a result, Robin Hood has elevated the conversation about material hardship. The term can include anything from being evicted, forgoing medical care, having utilities cut off, or running out of food–all due to lack of funds. For the 9% of adult New Yorkers who remained in poverty from 2012 to 2013, 23% stayed in hardship. Material hardship, as it turns out, has a lot of staying power.

The latest addition of the Poverty Tracker reminds us that people move in and out of financial disadvantage. While owning assets like a home, a car, or savings help cushion New Yorkers from financial struggles, we were surprised to find that those with large sums of debt are actually less likely to experience poverty. If you take a step back to think about it, it makes sense: you need a high income to qualify for large loans. At the same time, debtors who owe large sums of money are more likely to experience material hardship.


Poverty in New York isn’t permanent, but it’s certainly still a problem. To learn more about the persistence of poverty and hardship for different populations, explore the data on the site.

Millions of women need birth control

Hundreds of millions of women worldwide lack the freedom or the means to decide if, when, or how often they’ll have children. In the United States alone, 4.72 million married women want to stop or delay having kids, but don’t have birth control. Our most recent visualization for No Ceilings: The Full Participation Project explores where married women lack the means to plan the number or timing of their children. In the policy world, the issue is described as the “unmet need for family planning,” but you can think of it as the disconnect between a woman’s reproductive intentions and her contraceptive behavior.

More than one in ten women in the U.S. lack the means to plan their pregnancies

There’s a whole host of reasons why married women who want to stop or delay having kids don’t use contraceptives. Reasons include cost, lack of access or information, the perception of being at low risk for pregnancy, opposition to use, and stigma, among many others. Overall though, one of the most commonly cited explanations was that there was an insufficient supply of methods and services, meaning there weren’t enough people or places that could share information on available methods, or give women access to their choice option. Cost is also a major barrier, so many women are quite literally priced out of their reproductive rights.

When women and men lack the resources for family planning, they may have more children than they’re able to support. Women in Niger, for instance, have an average of eight children each, yet nearly one in four want to stop or delay having kids (but don’t have birth control). Also keep in mind that the average fertility rate is eight children, so many women in Niger have even more than eight mouths to feed.


We launched the story in conjunction with the Women Deliver conference, based in Copenhagen, Denmark, this week. The conference brings together people from a variety of backgrounds to drive progress in maternal, sexual, and reproductive health and rights.

To me, the story on the need for family planning speaks the the level of agency a woman has in her marriage. When a married woman lacks the say to plan her pregnancies, she also lacks a say in her future. Explore country level data at You can also learn more on the explanations for unmet in a report by the Guttmacher Institute.

Oh, the places we go

We’re excited to announce the release of the second episode of Especially Big Data, our new podcast. The episode, Oh, the places we go, explores the great lengths people travel to collect a single data point, and the many issues they encounter along the way. From the door-to-door surveys of the U.S. Census, to the mountain treks of community health workers, and then to NASA satellites hovering 650 km above the earth, tune in to hear some exciting tales from the trails.

Data collectors go to great lengths to gather information. For some, those distances extend beyond earth’s atmosphere. Oceanographer Gene Feldman gave us a sneak peak at how NASA uses satellites to measure the livelihood of microscopic plants in the ocean. The information that their satellite captures in single minute would require an entire decade for oceanographers to collect by boat.

We also spoke with Steve Klement of the U.S. Census Bureau. Steve told us about the complications of surveying and serving the same population– as the census captures information about the public, for the public. While the bureau goes to great lengths to make information accurate and accessible for a general audience, there are also occasions where they need to suppress, or hide information to protect the privacy of businesses and individuals.

Meryn Robinson of Dimagi also spoke with us about privacy and the sensitivity of information– particularly when it comes to metrics on health. Meryn is a senior research coordinator, and she helps train community health workers around the world to use Dimagi’s data collection software, CommCare, on phones and tablets. While Meryn spends most of her days at an office in Cambridge, MA, she has co-workers who climb mountains for their daily collection efforts.

In addition to the full audio piece, we put together a few teasers to highlight moments from the episode. We enlisted Rachel, our in-house animator, to bring a few of our favorite audio clips to life.

Gene Feldman, an oceanographer at NASA, explaining how data collection instruments change once launched into space.

Meryn Robinson, a senior research coordinator at Dimagi, describing how her commute is different from that of a co-worker, who was training data clerks in Guatemala.

Tune in to Especially Big Data here or check out the links below:

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Founded in 2010 by Ben Fry, Fathom Information Design works with clients to understand complex data through interactive tools and software for mobile devices, the web, and large format installations. Out of its studio in Boston, Fathom partners with Fortune 500s and non-profit organizations across sectors, including health care, education, financial services, media, technology, and consumer products.

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