On July 27, 2020, 51 people emigrating to the United States were found dead in an overheated trailer near the Mexican border. Understanding why migrants are willing to take such risks is the subject of a recent exhibit and report authored by researchers at MIT’s Civic Data Design Lab (CDDL). Research findings were used by the US Senate and the United Nations to develop new strategies to address the challenges, threats, and opportunities of migration in America.
To illustrate these motivations and risks, CDDL researchers designed an exhibition with digital and physical visualizations that encourage visitors to engage more deeply with the experiences of migrants. Distance Unknown made its debut at the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) board meeting in Rome earlier this summer, with plans for more exhibition stops next year.
The exhibition is inspired by the 2021 Migration Report co-authored by CDDL, which highlighted economic hardship as a key factor pushing migrants from Central America to the United States. The report’s findings were cited in a January 2022 letter from 35 US senators to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Secretary of State Antony Blinken (who heads the Biden administration’s migration task force), committed to addressing humanitarian needs in Central America used. In June, the United States joined 20 countries in issuing the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, which proposed expanded legal migration opportunities.
“This exhibition takes a unique approach to visualizing migration stories by humanizing the data. Visitors to the exhibition can see the data as a whole, but then they can delve deeper and learn about migrants’ individual motivations,” says Sarah Williams, associate professor of technology and urban planning, director of the Civic Data Design Lab and the Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism and the lead designer of the exhibition.
The data for the exhibition was drawn from a survey of over 5,000 people in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras conducted by WFP and analyzed in the subsequent report. The report showed that about 43 percent of those surveyed in 2021 considered migrating in the previous year, compared with 8 percent in 2019 — a change that comes after nearly two years of the impact of a global pandemic and dramatically increasing food insecurity there region enters . Survey participants cited low wages, unemployment and low income as factors that increase their desire to migrate, ahead of reasons such as violence or natural disasters.
On the wall of the exhibition is a living paper money tapestry woven by 13 Latin American immigrants. Measuring approximately 15 feet by 8 feet, this physical data visualization explains the root causes of migration from Central America documented by CDDL research. Each bill in the tapestry represents a migrant; Visitors are invited to take a piece of the tapestry and scan it at a touchscreen station where the story of this migrant appears. This allows visitors to delve deeper into the causes of migration by learning more about why an individual migrant family in the study left their homeland, their household circumstances and their personal stories.
Another feature of the exhibition is an interactive map that allows visitors to explore the paths and obstacles migrants encounter on their way. Compiled from a unique dataset collected by researchers at internet hotspots along the migration path, the data showed that migrants from 43 countries (some as far away as China and Afghanistan) used this Latin American path. The map highlights the Darien Gap region of Central America, one of the most dangerous and costly migration routes. The area is remote with no roads and consists of swamps and dense jungle.
The intense multimedia exhibition showcases the approach Williams is taking with her research. “One of the exciting features of the exhibition is that it shows artistic forms of data visualization starting new conversations that create the dialogue necessary for political change. We couldn’t be more excited about how the exhibition has helped influence the hearts and minds of people who have the political will to influence politics,” says Williams.
In his opening speech at the exhibition, David Beasley, Executive Director of WFP, stated that “when people have to migrate because they have no other choice, it creates political problems on all sides”, stressing the importance of proposing solutions. Citing the 2021 report, Beasley found that migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras spent a combined $2.2 billion migrating to the United States in 2021, which is consistent with their respective governments’ spending on primary education is comparable.
WFP hopes to take the exhibit to other locations including Washington, Geneva, New York, Madrid, Buenos Aires and Panama.