Fashmaps tells the story of a crisis mapping project but unlike other crisis mapping initiatives, such as Flowminder or ACLED, in which data subjects are mobile within a crisis, the subjects of these data are static and they are the crisis.
An article about a website named Fashmaps crossed my Twitter feed last month, detailing an online project launched in January 2018 which aims to inform local communities in the United States about the presence and gatherings of neo-nazis in their area.
As with traditional crisis mapping, using data to pinpoint the locations and severity or frequency of specific incidents during major global crises, Fashmaps aims to do something similar albeit in the context of a Western country becoming acutely aware of an uptick in white supremacist violence as well as a strengthened and empowered far right (oftentimes known as the alt-right) political presence in the US.
Fashmaps documents two framings of data on fascism in the US: the first is data on incidents of white supremacist terror since 2001. These data are sourced from news reports in the US. Some of these events you will have heard of and others, perhaps surprisingly, might have escaped your attention.
The second type of data that Fashmaps collates and presents is more questionable and comes with a legal disclaimer appealing users to refrain from violence. This map aims to track and locate the presence of neo-nazis in neighbourhoods around the US by using data obtained from discussion boards arising from the now defunct alt-right website The Daily Stormer as a resource.
Where this differs fundamentally from crisis mapping projects executed in the developing world in the wake of natural disasters or facing political upheaval is the static nature of the data. It suggests the people at its center being the willing cause of a crisis of sorts as opposed to being affected by crisis or caught up in struggle by the nature of unfolding events outside of their control.
Data as a Battleground for Representation
Much crisis mapping deals with using mobile phone technology to track the movements of people in crisis. Sometimes it pins precise locations on incidents of violence during riots or in the wake of contested political outcomes. Fashmaps doesn’t provide particularly fast moving data and doesn’t offer specific locations of the “nazis in your neighbourhood,” or any other specifics at all really.
For comparison, Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) is a disaggregated conflict collection, analysis and crisis mapping project that collects data on the dates, actors, types of violence, locations and fatalities of all reported political violence and protest events across Africa, South Asia, SouthEast Asia and the Middle East.
|ACLED provides a broad overview of data on armed conflict in the regions it covers. Classifying incidents of violence as ‘events’ the gateway into the stories is a visual snapshot of event frequency.||Another level to this overview allows the end user to select a country to closer inspect. In the case of South Sudan, it further classifies the ‘events’ into 5 types of violence.|
|It estimates, examines, analyses and reports the actors involved in these conflicts, making an informed attempt to quantify the involvement of each actor.||ACLED places the events on a timeline illustrating the types and frequency of these ‘events’ over a defined period of time.|
Their data is timely, critical and more robust than that of Fashmaps, and has a more potential to provide contextual information by means of an accompanying analysis as well as by means of up-to-date statistics. ACLED is also designed for multi-faceted use, be it in journalistic reporting or academics. Fashmaps, perhaps due to its seemingly legal and ethical limitations that ACLED and Flowminder are not subject to, provides a primarily basic sense of grim fascination on the politically current topic of the resurgence of neo-nazis in the US.
The West and Violence
Indeed some of the minorities identified in the data as victims of neo-nazi violence are minorities who would typically also experience violence from people or groups who do not identify with fascism or nazism. Scott’s (1998) discussion on ‘legible’ and ‘visible’ data is an interesting application here, in that when mapping reports of violence, some minorities are generally less likely to report than others and some not at all perhaps due to either previous inaction or adverse experiences from reporting. It provides a rare case for data that is neither ‘visible’ nor ‘legible.’
This is only one reason why the data feels crucially under-classified from a scientific perspective and sensational from a journalistic one (please note: they are both to both practices).
Much of the US media hasn’t helped that sensationalist culture either, with the New York Times being repeatedly lambasted for running pieces with apparent aims to normalize their neo-nazi interview subjects. However, in January 2018 the Anti Defamation League released a report that found 18 people were killed by white supremacists in 2017, signifying that it is an issue that is deserving of less magazine-style curiosity pieces and certainly of valuable, well designed and insightful data analysis.
The story that the Fashmaps data tells us is strikingly similar to that that the New York Times pieces are stoking, as well as that which was apparent at the Unite The Right rally in Virginia last year; that these new faces of white supremacy are less inclined to lurk on the periphery and more visibly ready to stand and be counted for what they represent.
We know this. Data can and should always strive to tell us things that we don’t.
Additional Texts Used:
Scott, J.C. (1998). Seeing like a state: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. New Haven: Yale University Press.