Data Visualization and Visual Culture

Information graphics and data visualization permeate our modern culture. Although not often awarded the significance and impact of advertising or other forms of mass media, charts, graphs, maps, and other abstractions of data play an extremely important part in shaping the the way we see the world. These abstractions can be used to shed new light on statistics and other quantitative measures of the world. Conversly, data visualization can also be used to re-enforce hegemonic viewpoints and obscure underlying connections and relationships. So pervasive has this form become that, like all things that reach positions of prominence within society, it has become the subject of ridicule and satire.

 
>>The Onion Infographic
 
Data visualization is often employed to bring weight and authority to an assertion or statement. A chart or map implies an objective view, in the same way that a statement made by a scientist is credited with being based in universal fact and not a victim of subjectivity or a specific agenda. As anyone familiar with basic principles of statistics knows, however, an "objective" chart can be as deceitful as any written statement or doctored photograph. Sometimes, they can be almost meaningless, signifying little but exuding authority.

Data Vizualizations, however, are social constructions, perhaps even more so than many of the other media forms we deal with as part of modern society. The principles behind them and their effectiveness are completely dependant upon certain prior knowledge and involement with a modern, visual culture. It is difficult to mount a positivist argument behind the inherent understandability or meaning of something like a bar chart or a false color image.

 
>>USAToday Infographic
 
Many of the principles that we apply to the analysis of media such as television and photography can be applied when viewing a chart, map, or other form of data abstraction. Just as we look to see what the underlying background and position of a producer of an advertisement or film might be, the producer position and intended meaning of an information graphic must be considered.

Stuart Hall defined three primary modes by which viewers read imagery:
Dominant/hegemonic Reading - an unquestioning identification with the message of the image;
Negotiated Reading - a reader accepts some aspects of a dominant message while rejecting others;
Oppositional Reading - a position in which the message is rejected or ignored.

 
 
These principles, commonly associated with analysing advertising, film, or print media, are directly applicable when a viewer is confronted with an information graphic. It is likely true, however, that due the inherent simplifications used in creating information graphics that users are more likely to respond in either the first or third sense: outright acceptance or rejection of the message being presented.

It is also important to bear in mind the position and assumptions of those who create information graphics and visualizations. Every producer comes from a certain perspective, and both implicit and explicit meanings are embued into their work. For example, a publication designed for the United States will have a tendency to present issues in terms geared toward the American populace. In a display showing proportional population, the US will appear less distorted, as everything is presented in proportion to it. This is potentially confusing and irritating to viewers from other nations or societies.

 
>>Proportional Map
 
Although the previous example is an example of a conscious use of a potentially distorting technique, there are other manifestations of technique that are so ingrained within an information graphic space that the ramifications of their use is often overlooked. Maps are again a good example. Most common maps we see tend to chart one or more of three characteristics: political divisions, topography, and transportation routes. It is the first of these that can prove problematic. While geological features and roads are physical elements of the landscape, political divisions and borders are fluid and for the most part do not occcupy any space outside the abstractions of maps. Many of our notions of the nature of a given region are shaped by these lines stretching across the land. But why is this depiction a better representation of the nature of a map that displays ethnic associations or language groups? But this technique is so common that it almost seems that a map without definitions is lacking something.
 
>>Afghanistan Map
 
These criticisms aside, there is ample reason to utilize data visualizations within our work and society. Motivating and shaping a populations perspective is not inherently evil - little changes for the better without public opinion being nudged a little bit! The value is readily apparent in scientific inquiry where some insights are only gained by narrowing variables. A tool is a tool, and key to utilizing a tool to best effect is an understanding of its strengths and weaknesses. Data vizualizations and information graphics are no different.