Data Visualization: Tools For Better Understanding Our Past, Present, And Future!

“I’ll have a large order of data, and can you visualize it?”

No doubt we live in an age where the collection of data is more important than ever. Journalist Clive Thompson calls it “an age of Big Data.” With today’s computers, we are able to do things with data that was previously not possible. Not only have advances in technology allowed us to collect mind-boggling amounts of data, these same advances have also given us technologies to help us understand what all that data means. One way to do this is to use what is called “data visualization.” 

So, what is data visualization? A simple definition from tableau.com describes it like this: 

“Data visualization is the graphical representation of information and data. By using visual elements like charts, graphs, and maps, data visualization tools provide an accessible way to see and understand trends, outliers, and patterns in data.”

To be sure, using a visual tool to represent data is not a new concept. Maps go back thousands of years, and the beginnings of today’s modern charts and graphs go back several hundred. In 1930, Rand McNally published a 5 foot tall “Histomap” that charted the world’s global powers over the last 4000 years. One major difference with today’s data visualization is that it is everywhere. David McCandless did a Ted talk in which he describes how exposed we are to data visualization in our daily lives:

“It’s almost like being exposed to all this media over the years had instilled a kind of dormant design literacy in me. And I don’t feel like I’m unique. I feel like everyday, all of us now, are being blasted by information design. It’s being poured into our eyes through the web. And we’re all visualizers now, and we’re all demanding a visual aspect to our information.” David McCandless

I think most of us appreciate visuals and graphics as we are reading an article. They help us to better understand, at a glance, what is being discussed. However, data visualization goes way beyond helping the casual reader to understand the subject of an article. The ways in which we understand our world is actually being changed by using data in new and exciting ways, which is increasingly important for historians. Frederick W. Gibbs, in his article New Forms of History: Critiquing Data and Its Representations, describes how data visualization is being used by historians: 

“As the historical record becomes increasingly digitized, historians now have new research methodologies and modes of dissemination at their fingertips that have virtually no precedent. Many of these opportunities center on an increasing use of data and its representations in historical analysis, interpretation, and writing.” Frederick W. Gibbs

In his article, Gibbs describes three main reasons why data has become an increasingly useful tool for historians: vast amounts of data can be assembled more easily, new digital tools are more accessible to historians, and the historical record is becoming digitized. Gibbs does not mince words when it comes to how important he believes it is for historians to involve themselves with new technologies such as data visualization:  

“Historians have always been interpreters and communicators of the historical record, continually adopting new theoretical frameworks and methodological approaches to reinterpret the past in light of the present. To refuse to engage with historical data and its representations is to refuse to engage with the future of history.” Frederick W. Gibbs

Gibbs believes that history courses should teach students to critique data and the ways in which it is represented. He argues that dealing with data is inevitable, and fluency with data, visualizations, and interfaces is important. While it may seem like data visualization is the end all, just like anything, there is always a down side. Gibbs expresses concerns that visualizations should still be held to the same academic standards as traditional formats. Citing the sources where we get our information is still just as critical. Also, having the same expectations for producing quality work should be expected. Gibbs uses a wonderful term as he looks at the down side of all of this data presenting. He wonders how it all fits into what he calls the “scholarly ecosystem,” 

“However, such representations (whether diagrams, maps, databases, or entire websites), while they might represent computational success, do not always equal analytical, interpretive, or communicative success—all prerequisites to sound historical scholarship.” Frederick W. Gibbs

Although we are inundated with data, it can give us some pretty amazing insights, as we see with David McCandless’s Ted talk. We can take a look at certain phenomena that otherwise would have been impossible without the gathering and disseminating huge amounts of data, and then present it in a coherent way. And like he stated in his lecture, sometimes the data causes you to change your perspective. He uses a great quote by one of his mentors: 

“Let the data set change your mindset.” Hans Rosling

Following are some examples of data visualization. The old and the new.

1786

1860

1930

Today

Thanks for Reading!

1 thought on “Data Visualization: Tools For Better Understanding Our Past, Present, And Future!”

  1. Hey Brian,
    I really enjoyed your post! “Scholarly ecosystem” and “Let the data set change your mindset” are two quotes that I am using in my blog post as well. I had never thought of scholastic practices as a sort of ecosystem before reading Gibbs’s “New Forms of History: Critiquing Data and Its Representations.” I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts.

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