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Review: Afro-Asian Networks Visualized

A review of Afro-Asian Networks, a data visualization project exploring internationalism between 1945 and 1965, directed by Rachel Leow, Su Lin Lewis, and Carolien Stolte

Published onFeb 26, 2024
Review: Afro-Asian Networks Visualized

Afro-Asian Networks 

Project Directors
Rachel Leow, University of Cambridge
Su Lin Lewis, University of Bristol
Carolien Stolte, University of Leiden

Project URL

Project Reviewer
Oishani Sengupta, University of Texas at El Paso

Project Overview

Rachel Leow

Afro-Asian Networks Visualised is a world map visualizing the movements of hundreds of people who attended Afro-Asianist conferences, broadly defined, between 1945 and 1965. The visualization was conceptualized and designed by Rachel Leow, a historian at the University of Cambridge, in conversation with a professional web developer at Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol, Tarim, as a central platform for public engagement with a broader collaborative project on Afro-Asian networks in the Cold War organized by Su Lin Lewis (University of Bristol) and Carolien Stolte (Leiden University). Each conference is mapped using data extracted from published conference proceedings, supplemented by further research into attendee backgrounds. 

The visualization offers students, teachers, other academics, and the general public a visual interface with the data underlying our project, allowing them to explore the conferences and individual attendees in greater detail. We are also particularly keen that audiences beyond the academy, and especially in the global south, some of whom may well have had family members or other personal contacts who attended such conferences, might be empowered to explore their own stories further, or even to contribute more information to the visualization itself.  

The intellectual aims of the project are to give visibility to the extraordinary mobilities of global south actors in the postwar years, and also to visually widen our gaze beyond the more well known male diplomatic actors who populate the political canon of Third World non-alignment — Nasser, Sukarno, Nehru, etc. Many of the protagonists visualized are ordinary non-state actors, both male and female, and frequently unnamed in the general historical record, including teachers, poets, writers, journalists and artists. 

Conference data was extracted and entered into a large, theoretically open-access Google Sheets file whose parameters were designed by Rachel to ensure consistency as well as clear standards for the project to grow as needed in future to accommodate data from further conferences or new information about individuals. Through several design iterations, Tarim then designed the world map, side panel and timeline which drew on, and illustrated, the data in the spreadsheet. Project collaborators from a range of other universities (SOAS, Queen Mary, and others) focused on researching a single conference. This brought original research to bear on both this visualization as well as individual article contributions published in traditional peer-reviewed journals.  

A key technical intention of the project was also to explore how data visualization might be used not just to illustrate connections between things, but also to help analyze them. Rachel worked with Tarim to design an appropriate interface that allows viewers to select and cross-reference multiple conferences to visualize individuals who attended multiple conferences over these two decades, as a way to highlight avenues for further research. For instance, performing such an analysis in comparing the Asia-Pacific Peace Conference in 1952 and the two Afro-Asian People's Conferences in 1957 and 1960, yields lists of surprisingly peripatetic individuals who attended all three, and about whom we might begin to ask further questions: who they were, why they attended them, and who funded them to travel.  

One of the great challenges of doing projects like this is the unevenness of the data we were working with. In Rachel's conversations with Tarim over this project, critical existential and epistemological questions emerged. Unlike the digital world, everything was non-binary. The names of people from Asia, Africa or Latin America were pressed into inconsistent romanization schemes, and often had several names, or changed their names over time. The historical country borders of Egypt, China, Vietnam, India — largely unquestioned in Google map data — are famously fluid in this period of decolonization. How do you visualize shifting borders on a static map? (Thus, we chose to omit nation-state borders on the map entirely). How do you show that it mattered that the majority of Vietnamese who went to the Asia-Pacific Peace conference in 1952 were from North, not South, Vietnam, even though we live in a worldmap in which the two are unified today? 

We had knotty struggles over how to designate the right coordinates for the location of a conference, or worse still, to represent where a delegate was "from." How do you record the fact that someone was invited to, but was prevented from attending, a conference, like Matsumoto Jiichiro and a large number of other Japanese delegates at the Asia-Pacific Peace Conference? Or that you know for a fact that someone was in town when a conference happened, and that they attended the conference, but their name doesn’t appear on the conference list? The world beyond the digital is a messy, non-binary one, full of grey areas, incomplete data, and silences, and when we look at any data visualization, with its neat lines and clear demarcations, we should always keep its essentially illusory nature firmly in mind, even while we acknowledge and celebrate what it allows us to see anew.

An ambition for a future version of the project is to enable the visualization to be dynamically populated with such data, which at present it is not. We used the Google suite (maps and sheets) for reasons of accessibility and convenience, wishing to ensure that the data we entered into it would be exportable and not be bound up in something proprietary.  

Project Review

Oishani Sengupta

Afro-Asian Networks Visualized is an interactive digital mapping project that traces the movement of several hundred delegates who attended notable Afro-Asian conferences from 1945 to 1965. Designed through the collaboration between historians Rachel Leow, Su Lin Lewis, and Carolien Stolte, with data visualization support provided by Tarim (Pervasive Media Studios), the project aims to fill noted gaps in the archives of Afro-Asian internationalism in the 20th century by unearthing the backgrounds and trajectories of important political actors through the combination of an innovative display interface and robust research.

While Pervasive Media Studios has designed several “Media Playgrounds” or interactive digital installations, the customizations specific to Afro-Asian Networks Visualized were based on the dataset that Leow designed to track the identities and movements of individual conference delegates over two decades. Original conference proceedings, miscellaneous reports, biographical data of attendees, and records maintained by observers have been adapted to create the dataset, which allows users to access the names of delegates, their countries of origin, attendance histories, and brief biographies through the interactive timeline and right-side panel. 

For the project, data visualization is clearly designed to produce analytical outcomes. The site is accompanied by a tutorial video that explains how to toggle the entries on specific delegates to show their biographies as well as significant overlaps between people from distant locations. Thus, this website makes effective and innovative use of visuality as interpretive method, since its careful juxtaposition of maps, lists, and color-coded schema urges questions about the frequencies and interruptions within what Lisa Lowe has deemed intercontinental “intimacies.” 

The site’s accessible yet critical approach towards data visualization points to one of its greatest utilities as a pedagogical tool and resource for research. Just as the lack of national borders interrogates the complex geopolitics of decolonization shaped by the Cold War, similarly, the gaps and complications in the record of attending delegates brings persistent historical conditions to the surface. For instance, what were the dynamics that shaped the Afro-Asian Writer’s Conference (AAWC) in the same year, where India and China emerged as the dominant participants? While the answers to questions like this may be obvious, other more fragile lines of inquiry become crystallized through the website’s careful visual design.

Overall, Afro-Asian Networks Visualized deepens users’ understanding of the submerged histories of internationalist political engagements among the global south nations. Not only does it reorient the focus of scholars from the aggrandized importance of the Bandung Conference to a sequence of interconnected gatherings and events spread across decades, but it also presents data on individual delegates and attendees in ways that can reveal important microhistories. With its emphasis on migration, mobility, and individual lives, the project contributes to a range of disciplines such as Afro-Asian studies, Indian Ocean studies, postcolonial and diaspora studies, and narratives of decolonization and global solidarities, while simultaneously offering a model for critical and informed digital practice.

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