Visualizing Data (I will fix the missing word clouds soon)


Reading(s) and Class Visit/Discussion:

Data visualization is not new, but is now more widely used and accessible in and by popular culture. Because of its new-found popularity and wide-spread usage it is imperative that those of us driven to describe only via text or oration learn to incorporate visuals into our work, and to do so we need to understand data visualization as a tool. As the name implies, the process is at its simplest the visual representation of a data set (or, body of information-as-data). Now, I suppose the first question would be have to be “Why?”, or “To what ends?”. It has been suggested in class by visiting speakers and by our readings that the defense of visual representation of data is varied, but seems to find roots in the human’s natural visual processing power. We are quite sight-driven, and so it stands to reason that a visual should pique our interest and with great positive results. Well, though we certainly engage more quickly with the bright-and-shiny pictures that surround us we don’t necessarily engage deeply with these images, and even when we do it’s tough to posit that it’s always for the better. But then, what is “better”? I hate to repeat myself within these reflections, but I don’t have the answers to these questions. I do, however, have many questions to ask that I otherwise wouldn’t have had, and am better equipped to discuss the potential of data visualization as it applies to humanities research, or scholarly research in general. That being said, let’s move on to Dr. Weaver’s questions and Dr. Lauren Klein’s visit.

Though I was not present in class during Dr. Weaver’s talk, his questions mirror those that have been raised during every unit this semester. While studying geo-mapping, the Dr.’s P asked us to consider the intent of the maps, the power of the map creator, and the information being highlighted or obscured. In attempting to address these concerns we all began to question, if we hadn’t before, the effect of control inherent in map-making, the influence it has on history and the study of. Now, this way of thinking, especially for those of us inclined to pour over conspiracy theories late at night, devolves quickly into a delusional existential crisis. But, it prepares us to question not only the underpinnings of a visual, but also its efficacy and aesthetic structure. Dr. Weaver posits questions regarding the objectivity/subjectivity of the visual, its perceptual and conceptual interpretability, as well as its role in narrative. These questions do not deal solely with the visuals we as individuals observe, but (I think) more importantly those that we create. What do we aim to say with our visuals? How can we best represent the subject/topic covered? Are we relying too heavily on the visual? All valid questions to ask while researching and building an argument or defending hypotheses. Questions that Dr. Laruen Klein helped answer during her visit.

During Lauren Klein’s she spoke about the role visualization plays in research. She posits that visuals need not solely be the end goal of a project, but instead a tool used as any other would be during the process as a whole. For whatever reason, this notion hadn’t struck me before. Because much of my work deals with creating mental visual through creative writing, I have rarely attempted to present anything as a literal visual (unless, of course, you count poetry as a visual art form, as Dr. Houston and many of us do). She continued to speak about visual representation as a method of and not simply a supplement to study/research. Just as we had learned in the textual analysis unit, the various tools we use to explore our data/information can lead to otherwise missed conclusions, or at least point us in different and more rich directions. In presenting her work as an example to the class, Dr. Klein shared this sentiment: “Visually representing your data in multiple ways gets you to come back to your underlying documents in a new/different way.”  It can be, and in my experience often is, a time sync. However, by reviewing the material again through a different set of methods, by experiencing the content through a less-linear lens, I found my efforts more fruitful. This, on one hand, points to the evidentiary potential of visualizing data, and on the other points to the learning curve inherent in adapting to and incorporating new tools.

Now comes the question of just how important or useful visuals are to a project. If, as Dr. Weaver suggested we should think about, a visual is perceptual interpretable, meaning it functions as an information/education aid, and if it is conceptually sound, meaning that it functions as an explorative tool or a conclusive representation of analyzed data, is that visual then complete and useful on its own? This is the question of the visuals role in the narrative of a project, and for it to function positively within that project it needs to be balanced. One wouldn’t (ideally) provide a map without a legend, and if one did one would need to provide a description of the maps purpose and the mapmakers goals. The same apples for any visualization that is itself a part of a larger project, and even on its own it requires some description. What is added when one provides a visual? Information provided as visual is, as mentioned above, engaging, or at the very least eye-catching. Text typically is not, and if it were modified to be so it may distract from the content. What happens to a visual when it is surrounded by text? It sits as focal point, but with the addition of just the right amount of description and detail a balance is struck and the two function symbiotically (I chose to make the point here that visuals and text are separate bodies, two distinct lenses through which one might view a subject). That brings us to Dr. Weaver’s final question: “What would you change about the visualization and why?”


Working With Visuals

            In an attempt to understand better the process of researching and/or answering/asking questions using data visualization as a jump off I took every post in my group blog and threw it into Voyant to play with it. Cirrus, an app-like function of Voyant that automatically generates a word cloud after a corpus has been “revealed”, after some manipulation (omitting the stop-words) showed that five words stood out as significantly present. These five words, knowledge, information, reading, close, and distant, are not surprising considering the content of this course. Taking it a step further I decided to copy the other groups posts and try the same things. The results were, well, nearly identical. Here are the word clouds:

Group one:

Group two:

Group three:



            Now, I should state here that I’m not a fan of word clouds, in fact I find them almost completely useless, however to support my argument that visuals need always be in the presence of text that supports their purpose, that these word clouds presented alongside this paper make a point, and if you look further than the surface of the clouds themselves and delve into the idea of what they attempt to represent that you’re well on your way to analyzing with a sharper, broader, but adjustable lens. What I find interesting about these word clouds is what, as Dr. Weaver wanted us to take note of, they do not show. Well, what two of them do not, and what one does. The five most oft used words are, for the most part, what I stated above. However, in further reviewing the images I noticed that group one has “human” as a frequently used word, and neither group 2 nor 3 have that word present in the cloud at all. Sure, this isn’t a conclusion, but it is exploration.

Take Away/Conclusion

            Our unit on geomapping made a serious impact on me. How I look at maps, how I think about the seemingly un-mappable (nothing is un-mappable, partly because that isn’t a word), and how I think about my creative writing. This unit expands on that knowledge, influencing further my thought processes, and making for a better me with regard to my personal writing and course work. I suppose that that is the major take away, a change in thought-navigation and structure, a deeper and stronger sort of analysis. Humanities researchers, I think, should seriously consider adopting these tools and using them when appropriate, and also when seemingly inappropriate. Presenting data visually is art, just as maps are art, and our greatest tool for quick-engagement after dissemination. By taking a few pages from marketing’s playbook and applying it to artistic rendering of data sets we stand to make our points more apparent, more accessible, and downright more enjoyable. But, we must always remember to be varied in our presentations, and to not rely too heavily on visuals, a balance must be struck for real impact.





















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