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The Data-Driven, Community-Focused Designs of Ekene Ijeoma

By Catherine G. Wagley

On the first Thursday in May, Ekene Ijeoma gave a presentation at the regal Clemente Center on Suffolk Street in New York City. It was part of Creative Tech Week, a citywide convention that focuses on art, design, and technology. He started with a slide that read, in blue sans-serif text, “I see you, I acknowledge you, I value you.” These words had become a something of a mantra for him since he’d heard them, just one week before, from artist-activist Halima Cassells (speaking at the Idea City conference in Detroit).

A data-driven designer who cares deeply about community building, Ijeoma (pictured) realized that these words—see, acknowledge, value—pretty much summed up his own interests. In 2014, for example, he and his collaborators at Hyperakt design studio had interactively mapped 40 years worth of refugee patterns. They intended the resulting platform, The Refugee Project, to make vast, often misunderstood migrations more comprehensible. Comprehension, they believed, would (ideally) lead to a kind of empathy—or respect.

SEEING THE WORLD AROUND US

Ijeoma’s newest project, Look Up, literally involves seeing and, in spirit, valuing, in the form of acknowledging other people by making eye contact and saying hello: Look Up is an Android Live Wallpaper (an iOS app is coming soon) that reminds people to look up at intersections. Ijeoma considers Look Up (which is still in beta) to be part app and part public art project: users who have Look Up open on their phones as they navigate New York streets see big eyeballs in their wallpaper, see a notifcation if an app is open, or feel a vibration when they’re within 55 feet of an intersection, reminding them to “look up.”  

“lt's about creating a ritual of looking up at street intersections in NYC,” says Ijeoma. “Looking up from your phone tears down the digital walls we build up.... It transforms intersections into no-phone zones, creating spatio-temporal moments for open connections. It creates a space for you to be one with the streets, in tune with the rhythms and movements of intersections—I wanted to drain all the energy people pour into their phones back into the street.... It's more about pedestrian traffic than vehicle traffic, although it works on foot, on bicycle or in a vehicle.”

Look Up is a participatory public art project—about creating a ritual of looking up at street intersections in NYC—in the form of an Android Live Wallpaper. You can sign up now to get early access to Look Up.

The bio posted on Creative Tech Week’s schedule describes Ijeoma as a designer who “explores ways of connecting people, data, and social issues through visceral experiences.” And he prefers to emphasize the experience part over the technical tricks he employs. “I don’t want people to ask, ‘What technology does this use?’” he says. “Design, art, and tech are a means to an end.”

This position puts him at odds with some of his peers in the data visualization and tech fields, who often celebrate new technology as an end in itself. “Innovation for innovation’s sake,” says Ijeoma. “We call that ‘shininess.’”

His recent attempts to sidestep shininess in favor of meaningful content have generated buzz. Since its 2014 debut, The Refugee Project has appeared in a show at MoMA in New York and a show at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles. It also won two awards for interactive and information design. Ijeoma’s Wage Islands, a kinetic sculpture meant to reveal New York’s wage and housing inequality, showed at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in SoHo and now has a life of its own on Vimeo. GOOD magazine included Ijeoma in its 2016 The Good 100 issue as one of 100 tacklers of “pressing global issues.”

Ijeoma helmed the creative team behind Wage Islands, an interactive installation about wage and housing inequality in New York City (commissioned for the exhibition Measure at Storefront for Art and Architecture). It consists of a 3D topographic model of New York (made out of clear laser-cut acrylic), with elevations based on housing affordability. This model was placed on a mechanically controlled platform and submerged in a tank of blue water. A computerized control lets you enter a wage; as wages rise, so does the sculpture, exposing the parts of the city accessible to someone earning that amount. Click on the image to watch a short video.

THE ART OF DATA

Born in Texas to Nigerian immigrants, Ijeoma grew up wanting to be an artist, but his parents urged him toward a more stable career path. In 2002, after he finished high school, he enrolled at the Rochester Institute of Technology, majoring in information technology. While instructors tended to frame code as a tool for building banking programs and websites, Ijeoma pursued less obviously pragmatic projects, teaching himself to draw and design using code.

When he graduated, he took a job with a firm called Local Projects in New York City. They were working on City of Memory, an interactive map  that told the stories of New York’s neighborhoods through audio, images, video, and text. Residents had sat for interviews (recorded by City Lore), and users could click on icons on the map to access personal recollections of streets or sites. Ijeoma worked on City of Memory for a year.

After a series of stints at ad agencies, Ijeoma entered the Techno Talent competition sponsored by the Domus Academy in Milan. He won, and in 2007 went to Italy to study for 11 months in an MA interaction design program.

“Most of my projects were about exploring different ways of bringing the news into daily life,” he recalls. He and classmates made a Casualty Chair out of memory wire. It would start out as a chair for just one person; then, as news of more international war causalities arrived, it would expand, becoming a chair for two people or three. In the end, it would morph into a memorial to the dead. “It would just keep going through the cycle in an origami-like way,” Ijeoma recalls. “It was my answer to the ‘Why design another chair?’ question. I wanted to see if I could use the comfort or lack thereof to talk about the discomforts of the world outside your home or work space.”

After leaving Domus with a master’s degree in interaction design, Ijeoma spent some time gigging in Europe: he did a residency at Fabrica in Treviso, for instance, and he took a job with Samsung Design Europe in London. He returned to the United States in 2010, and his next project (for a fashion show) entailed using processing to design motion graphics and effects with code, transforming photos and videos of a dancer into abstracted line-, curve-, and ribbon-based forms. This job led to another one, with the Los Angeles firm Motion Theory. “They wanted to create data films about how IBM uses data to progress and innovate in health, medical, energy, and transportation sectors,” Ijeoma explains. “The first film I worked on was called Data Baby.”

AN ENTIRELY NEW POINT OF VIEW

Back in New York, he began attending the monthly lunch talks hosted by Hyperakt, a design studio that works primarily with NGOs and nonprofits. He got to know Hyperakt’s founders, Deroy Peraza and Julia Zeltser, both refugees who met at Parsons School of Design. They invited Ijeoma to brainstorm with them after they returned from a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees conference with decades worth of refugee-related stats. “We just came together to to see how we could tell our stories and wrap our heads around others,” Ijeoma remembers.

The Refugee Project is a chronological animated map of refugee migrations since 1975. It’s made up of UN data complemented by original histories of the major refugee crises of the last four decades.

When it showed at MoMA, as part of the Design and Violence exhibition in 2015, the supporting text referenced photographs by Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, who documented U.S. migrations during the Great Depression, and then suggested that data has allowed for a “newly global awareness.”

“I usually say that data helps us see what’s outside of the frames [of photography],” says Ijeoma. “It helps us see the millions of other refugees behind the few being photographed. News likes to put focus on one country or another, but we zoom out to show this is a global issue.”

Perhaps The Refugee Project calls for empathy as effectively as mid-century photographs, but Ijeoma is still grappling with how to make the human reality of numbers resonate widely. In preparing for the project that followed The Refugee Project, Wage Islands, he thought about what it had been like during Hurricane Sandy, when parts of New York went dark or flooded, in relation to income gaps.

“We usually think about polarization in terms of politics,” Ijeoma muses. “But personal polarization is becoming larger and larger.” He thinks of the distance people often have from their immediate communities, and how they’re not necessarily in tune with individuals from other economic brackets, let alone their immediate neighbors. He believes that technology makes it easier for us to live in our own socioeconomic bubbles, as we go from work to home using tech to interact only in transactional ways, as opposed to conversational ways.

Ijeoma wants to combat this, whether through a data-driven sculpture that requires physical engagement or through an app that encourages users to look away from the screen. He says, “You have to get people to question things they think they know, but they haven’t really seen or experienced.” 

Ekene Ijeoma was one of many creative luminaries who spoke at 2016’s Adobe MAX. Visit the MAX website to watch recorded keynote presentations and conference sessions.