One of the theses produced within the framework of the research group deals with the issue of ethics.
Zsófi Szopkó graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology, and for her thesis she chose an issue closely and in practical terms related to the research group’s activities: the ethics of data visualizations. In her work, after introducing the work of DEGOB and explaining the main ethical theories, she analyses the Holocaust representations of RC2S2 and other research groups with the help of methodological concepts and the most acknowledged theoretical frameworks. In this article, with Zsófi’s help, we will take a look at the most important ethical questions that arise during our research.
DEGOB recorded approximately 4,000 interviews, of which 3,665 are currently available. If one wishes to handle and analyze this dataset, one will come across serious ethical considerations. Dissecting, discussing them is essential, especially in light of our main objectives. The Digital Lens research group aims to engage in the practice known as public history: to reach the widest possible audience with insights and results of the research, using methods which facilitate understanding and make the difficult research topic and its uncomfortable truths relatable. An interactive, professionally prepared data visualization is audience-friendly and eye-catching, but at the same time, a series of decision points arise during the processing of the data itself.
Even the smallest of details play an important role in visualizations. With what color do we depict the homebound route of a deportee who survived? How do we mark the victims themselves? Can we name them, and if yes, how?
In the Dachau concentration camp, for example from 1937-38 onwards, a very precise system was used to code the prisoner badges. The colors and shapes used, therefore, have a specific meaning in Holocaust research today. Nazis used the color red for political prisoners and Socialists, pink for homosexuals, trans persons, and alleged pedophiles, and green for whom they considered criminals. The Star of David was used to distinguish Jews, the inverted triangle was the sign of “non-Jewish” prisoners, and a plain triangle was worn by enemy POWs and spies. Many other colors and shapes had specific meanings in this system, so it bears some significance which colors and shapes are used in the data visualizations. (To see more about color coding see: https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/classification-system-in-nazi-concentration-camps)
When we talk about ethics, the issue of anonymization is, of course, unavoidable. With the Digital Lens research group, we opted for showing only the first letter of the last name, and indicating the first name in its entirety. This decision was based on two aspects: on the one hand, we don’t want the persons to be fully identifiable, but on the other hand, by presenting their first names, we make them personable, we signify that they were human beings just like us. With this method, the diagram itself becomes richer and more relatable, yet easier to read, as we can see names instead of numbers.
“The real difficulty of the topic is that it is not my goal to determine what is ethical and what is not,” Zsófi says. She then recounts how she came across this topic during her preliminary research work, and how she started to ask questions about how we talk about victims, what our limitations and permissions are, as she deep-dived into the relevant literature. As the group began to work on the data visualizations, this question arose even more powerfully: is it even possible to mark a Holocaust survivor with a single number or string of data?
“Although defining what is ethical and what is not is not an easy task in itself, I consider it a very important and interesting topic. The approach is meandering, and our thinking may lead us astray. We seem to be going in the wrong direction, misunderstanding and ethical dilemma arise; and yet, it is so important to realize that without considering the ethical aspects of language, topography, and gender, it is not possible to publish anything at all,” Zsófi summarizes her experience.