DH – 804 – Visualization

This weeks topic (Visualization) and next weeks (Mapping) are areas that I have a much stronger background in. As Dr. Mullen has articulated that out of these five topics (Text Analysis, Networks, Visualization, Mapping, Humanities Computing), we need to be proficient in at least one to be considered a Digital Historian. Well, Visualization and even more so with Mapping are my areas of interest/expertise (I use this term extremely lightly). I found myself reflecting on my Cartographic Design class from my undergraduate in Geography. Each week, the professor had assigned a topic related to design (the human eye, color, texture, computer screen’s rendering of color, etc.) and then we would contribute something to those topics on the GIS wiki.

The articles this week can really be divided into two “camps.” The first camp were articles that discussed visualization directly and its place in the field of humanities. The second group were thematic articles that utilized different forms of visualization to support or elaborate their arguments. While the readings were interesting, I really liked Elijah Meeks series of posts “Gestalt Principles for Data Visualization” (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4). We covered Gestalt in my Cartographic Design class and it was very useful. Breaking down the visualization into its Gestalt components can really help a user to understand how the visualization comes together and what ultimately is the intent of the visualization. Meeks explanation is very easy to understand and provides a good framework to begin analyzing visualizations. I also read through the GIS wiki page on Gestalt just because it has a nice pithy breakdown of the various components.

I also want to focus on a statement David Staley makes in his book Computers, Visualization, and History. Right in the introduction he outlines the fundamentals of visualization. He says “a visualization is any graphic that organizes meaningful information in multidimensional spatial forms.” He goes on to articulate that “Visualizations are a specific subset of all possible images, in that their purpose is to organize signs representing data and information in two-and three-dimensional form.” Between these two statements by Staley, two words stand out to me: organize and purpose. There has been ample discussion, both in this course and others, of the need to address the question of audience. Yet, in connection with audience is what is the purpose of this visualization and what organization needs to take place in order to achieve that purpose. This is akin to Tufte’s discussion of “chart junk,” the unnecessary clutter and contrived images that made visualizations confusing. The purpose of the visualization needs to be both addressed and readdressed as the visualization is organized. This focus on purpose and organization is even more important when viewed in light of Staley sharp distinction in visualization: those used in research and those used to present. The visualizations used to probe a question or possibly answer it does not mean that same visualization should be used for the public. This dichotomy can be realized by constantly returning to the purpose of the visualization and how is it organized.

I am left pondering the overall place of visualization in various scholarly platforms – namely the print vs. the digital. Print limits the scholars use of visualization not only because of the lack of interactivity but in the financial burden visualizations pose in printed text. However, the digital does not carry such burdens. The continuous amount of data and the interactivity of the web allows for almost an endless stream of visualizations. How, then, does the ability to create and curate an almost endless stream of visualization influence my own work and my own relationship with visualizations as a scholar?

DH – 804 – Visualization

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