Data and Storytelling Are In Karthick Ramakrishnan’s DNA

Karthick Ramakrishnan CAAM Storytellers
“We believe that data is beautiful, or can be beautiful and compelling. So we put a lot of time and thought into how data are visualized and presented.”

The idea for came in an instant.

Shortly after the 2012 election, a reporter asked Dr. Karthick Ramakrishnan, University of California Riverside professor of public policy, for some basic demographic information about the Vietnamese American community in Orange County for a story about Asian American voters and a particular race involving a Vietnamese American candidate. Ramakrishnan explained how to easily get the information from the US Census Bureau website. However, as simple as it seemed to Ramakrishnan, it was not so easy for the reporter, who asked if Ramakrishnan could just get the data for him.

“So that’s where the light bulb went off in my head,” said Ramakrishnan, who was also concerned that media and policy makers seemed to only be interested in Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) during election years. “We can grab some of this data and make it easier to access and to really focus on the key data points that people need to know about different Asian American communities, whether by national origin or where they live in terms of their state or their county. So that’s how we started.”

AAPI Data makes data about AAPI demographics, policy priorities, and civic engagement patterns accessible and usable for a wide range of community organizations, advocates, and journalists. “We need to make sure that our issues and our interests are relevant and visible, year after year, month after month,” said Ramakrishnan.

Karthick Ramakrishnan Google
Jennifer Lee, Karthick Ramakrishnan, and Aixa Cintron-Velez, Program Director of the Russell Sage Foundation onstage at Google New York after presentation of results from the 2016 National Asian American Survey, Image Courtesy of Jennifer Lee

Although he is often associated with questions of data, Dr. Karthick Ramakrishnan is also a storyteller at the intersection of data, narrative, and action. Ramakrishnan has been a professor of public policy and political science at the University of California, Riverside since 2005, and founding director of its Center for Social Innovation. He directs the National Asian American Survey, is founding director of which publishes demographic data and policy research on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and also founded Census Legacies which builds on the foundation of census outreach coalitions to build more inclusive and equitable communities. He chairs the California Commission on APIA Affairs, serves on the U.S. Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee (NAC), and was named to the Frederick Douglass 200. Ramakrishnan’s research focuses on civic participation, immigration policy, and the politics of race, ethnicity, and immigration in the United States. 

“We believe that data is beautiful, or can be beautiful and compelling,” said Ramakrishnan. “So we put a lot of time and thought into how data are visualized and presented.”

In 2013, AAPI Data was at first simply a portal to reports created by academics and community organizations that met rigorous standards of social science. Soon, AAPI Data also started providing Quick Stats, or quick access to sortable data tables with basic information about population groups. In 2014, AAPI Data began partnering with community groups like Center for American Progress, AAPIVote, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC to create reports about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders regarding demographics and outcomes like education, health, civic participation, public opinion, and more. AAPI Data began creating simple infographics that made the message obvious at a glance and easy to use, and its new mapping tool creates detailed maps at the census tract level.

 “It was important for us to make sure that the research that we do isn’t just consumed by our community,” said Ramakrishnan. “It’s important for our community partners to be able to take research and to make a case for investment in their organization, for investment in the community. We also thought it was important for more mainstream audiences, if you will, think tanks like the Center for American Progress, to prioritize our communities as something that’s important.”

AAPI Data Undocumented infographic
Image Credit: AAPI Data

For example, when President Obama announced the expansion of DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and the creation of DAPA, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, in November 2014, AAPI Data used data put out by Migration Policy Institute to create many infographics to show how the Asian American community would be affected nationally and by state. The infographics went viral because they gave organizations in every state an easy way to show the magnitude of the problem and that this was an AAPI issue.

“It wasn’t even statistics, it was basic math, which is taking the number of undocumented Asians, putting them in the numerator, and then taking the total number of Asian immigrants, [and] putting it in the denominator,” said Ramakrishnan. “And what we found was that one out of every seven Asian immigrants was undocumented. And that was powerful.”

In addition to making data accessible, Ramakrishnan also champions the power of narrative and action, what he calls the DNA framework — Data, Narrative, and Action — developed at UC Riverside’s Center for Social Innovation. Community groups need data to be taken seriously by policymakers or investors, but they also need narrative stories to understand what that data means in real life and to be memorable. And when both data and narrative are tied to a community group’s strategic action, things happen. 

For example, an AAPI Data blog post, “Census 2020 has a big Asian American Problem,” was used by dozens of organizations, including the Harris County, Texas, Judge’s Office (the County’s head governing body), to inform state and local legislators about the need for more resources to make sure that AAPIs are not undercounted in the 2020 US Census. 

Ramakrishnan has used this way of finding the narratives in data to collaborate with the Obama administration’s White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, create AAPI Voices to publish stories, and launch the #MoreThanBoba campaign to connect filmmakers and storytellers to elevate deeper Asian American narratives. As California lifts pandemic restrictions, Ramakrishnan is working with the Southern California Association of Governments to study how COVID has impacted different communities and to develop inclusive and equitable strategies for recovery.

Karthick Ramakrishnan White House
Karthick Ramakrishnan at WHIAAPI #AAPIElevate, October 2016, Image Credit: Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

AAPI Data has always been a lean organization with just a handful of researchers and graduate students, but one committed to action. “I became involved [with AAPI Data] because Karthick and I are long-time collaborators on many research projects and share a deep belief that there is power in accurate data and research,” said Dr. Janelle Wong, professor of American Studies at University of Maryland and senior researcher at AAPI Data. 

“Working with Karthick and the entire AAPI Data team, especially Janelle [Wong] and Sara [Sadhwani], is FUN,” said Dr. Jennifer Lee, Julian Clarence Levi professor of social sciences at Columbia University and senior researcher at AAPI Data. “While our conversations are serious, they are also interspersed with so much laughter and levity that it is sheer joy to work with this crew. Moreover, each of us is staunchly committed to this project. We understand the moral urgency of driving narratives with accurate data about the Asian American population, and also understand that it is essential to move beyond the walls of academia to engage with broader, more diverse audiences.”

Lee credits Ramakrishnan and Wong for encouraging her to become a public sociologist, “I used to be petrified of speaking and writing for public audiences because, as academics, we’re not trained to engage publicly. But they gently nudged (read: pushed ) me to get over my reluctance [and] trepidation, and because they did, I’m a stronger researcher, scholar, teacher, and mentor, so I’m tremendously grateful to them.” 

AAPI Data has been quick to respond to the widespread anti-Asian violence of the past year. After the Atlanta spa shootings, systematic data collection and modelling have been key to understanding how AAPI communities were being affected by hate incidents, as compared with other communities of color. Concerned about the undercounts that come with self-reported data and official reports, AAPI Data partnered with Survey Monkey to find out that almost 2 million Asian American adults have experienced anti-Asian hate incidents since the onset of COVID-19, which Lee reported to the Biden-Harris COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force.

Karthick Ramakrishnan CAAM Storyteller
Illustration by Andre Sibayan

For Ramakrishnan, the work of racial equity, as it involves Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, has data equity at its core. Data disaggregation is an important part of that, but it is also about investing to collect the data in the first place, committing to disseminate the data, and using that data to make a case for our communities.

“Our community has long recognized that if we don’t have the data, it’s very difficult to make a case for investment in our communities for various programs that are tailored to meet the needs of different populations,” said Ramakrishnan. “So we cannot lose sight of the importance of making sure that community is included and their voices are heard, in terms of giving meaning to the data and the research that is generated. We think it’s an honor and a privilege to be able to work with the community to be able to prioritize what kind of research would have the most impact, and then to rely on our community partners to continue to push the work ahead.”

Karthick Ramakrishnan will be the featured guest of CAAM’s Storyteller Session on Thursday, July 22. Register here to be part of the conversation between CAAM Executive Director Stephen Gong and Karthick Ramakrishnan to learn what sparked his interest in data and to learn more about his latest project, the “Declaration of Interdependence”.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a journalist, essayist, and poet focused on issues of Asian America, race, justice, and the arts. Her writing has appeared at NBCAsianAmerica, PRI GlobalNation, Pacific Citizen, and Detroit Journalism Cooperative. Follow her at or on social media @fkwang.