Census Spices

Hanna Kang-Brown

Census Spices is a research and data representation project using food to offer taste representations of US Census data. T


Census Spices offers a new medium--the taste of spices--for understanding the US Census. The project creates a conversational space around Census design and how it shapes what we know about who we are and where we are from. By pairing food with neighborhood data, the spice mixes provide a shared sensory experience in which to talk about the places we come from and live, the ways in which we identify ourselves and others and the ways in which that is determined for us by the Census Bureau. Ingredients are selected based on a study of spices used in ethnic cuisines, supported by data collected from a recipe API. The census data integrates ancestry, ethnicity and race data sets.

My project evolved a lot over the course of the semester in terms of my design process. At first, I wanted my end goal to be a marketable product introduced in a retail space/gallery with interactive web-based forms and visualizations. I wanted to address criticism about how I had chosen the ingredients because some people questioned it and thought it should be less subjective or more rigorous. I also wanted to interact with people in a shop installed in a gallery as a way of introducing a conceptual piece that was both a consummable good and an art project, and because the physical interactions and the conversations that this would bring about were important to me. To top all that off, I wanted to work on package design, research of the census and spices, web presence, and investigating what it would take to actually sell the spices.

I realized several weeks in that this was too much, and I was spreading myself too thin and not accomplishing anything very well. I ended up deciding to focus on what was most important to me--concept development and research. I took time to learn about the census and spices through reading and through key informational interviews and participation in related events. Two relationships that were very helpful for me. Ann Morning, a sociologist at NYU, became my go to person for learning more about the census and running my data by. Lior Lev Sercaz, a chef and spice shop owner, introduced me to a deeper way of thinking about food and spices. I attended a talk by him and a neurologist on the impact of food on memory and experience. I also went to a census panelist discussion at the Brooklyn Historic Society where I was able to talk with other census scholars and artists, most notably the U.S. Census Bureau's Chief of Racial Statistics. This part of my research helped me broaden my network, meet people doing similar work, and get a better sense of how I wanted to articulate my work.

One of the biggest components that I ended up ditching in my process was getting user feedback on the ingredient process. I thought one way to "fix" people's complaints about my subjective project of choosing ingredients was to create an interactive web form where people could indicate what ingredient they wanted and then visualize that with a real time visualization once they submitted it (in the shop). Upon further reflection however, (and after user testing wireframes), I realized that this wasn't the solution and not a direction I was interested in going in. While users may have a problem with how I chose the ingredients, I did not want to create a project within a project in order to ameliorate their discomfort or disagrement with my process. I felt that this wasn't the right direction and looked for another way.

One key discovery was the release of the Yummly API which happened in March. The Yummly API allowed me to create a reference in which I could search a vast recipe database by ethnicity, scrape and sort ingredients, and see the rate at which certain ingredients were being used through word count. This reference was helpful for me in confirming and negating decisions I had made and a good counterpart for re-examining my ingredient choices.

If I could sum up my design process and what I learned this semester, it would be to trust your gut, do what feels right to you, and simplify. My eyes are always bigger than my stomach when it comes to mealtimes and the same is true for what I'd like to accomplish in a given time frame. I had to cut way back on my project and lost a few weeks in the beginning trying to do too much. I also experienced a lot of confusion and loss of time as a result of not listening to my self and thinking too much of criticism I had received and how to address them. In the end, I found that my original instincts had been right but it took a lot of time and work to get around to that.

People interested in food, census, data representation. People interested in trying new foods and interested in neighborhood and geography, conversations about race and ethnicity.

User Scenario
Ideal scenario 1: the spice mixes are available for tasting and smelling in a storefront gallery. People pick up the spice jars, know immediately what the project is about, taste and smell, and relate their sense of the neighborhood to what they are tasting. Conversations ensue that normally wouldn't about the food, the data, and the memories and experiences it evokes.

Ideal Scenario 2: All of the above except in a restaurant, in collaboration with a chef who cooks meals with the food.

Ideal Scenario 3: All of the above except at a marketplace like Smorgasborg or a farmer's market.

Research: I. Spices - origin, history, use by ethnic groups, interaction in cuisine through visits to spice shops and book research.

II. US Census - refine data with help of data analyst, choose data sets with help of census historian. Read academic articles with guidance from Sociologist Ann Morning.

III. Production - mixing and visual design

To me, it is first an art project with the potential to be a business. I could see the spices being exhibited in a gallery. I could see the spices being featured in a restaurant through a partnership. And I could also see them being sold in specialty food shops and outdoor markets such as the Smorgasborg and the Brooklyn Flea. I would love to make this widely available for people to try at home and with their friends and experience new conversations and understandings of the Census and food.