A Reflection on Data Visualizations

This week I was catching up on recent blog posts in my RSS feed and I stumbled upon a very interesting (and very pretty) visualization of Baltic Sea Traffic (thanks to James Cheshire at http://spatial.ly/ for posting this video!). This visualization got me thinking about the benefits of using visualizations to represent big data, how visualizations can be argumentative, and the consequences of these realizations on how we critically examine such visualizations. But first, let’s take a look at the video:

So what does this visualization show us about the potential of using visualizations to represent data? First, it shows us how big data visualizations help viewers understand the scale and quantity of our data. It reminds me of the often-used Stalin quote, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” In the Baltic Sea Traffic visualization, sure they could just say how many ships travel in and around the Baltic Sea on any given day. But that is just a number, and a really large one at that. If they just said there were–to make up a number–100,000 ships per day, would we really be able to understand how many ships there were? Would we get a sense of their routes? I think the answer is no. When I see a number like 100,000, I understand that it is a large number but I cannot really picture it. This visualization is so much more effective at getting the viewer to understand the sheer number of ships moving in and out of the Baltic Sea on a given day. By depicting each ship as its own node we get to see their movement and interaction in real time. It is a truly chaotic picture, which is made even more effective by showing the number of accidents, collisions, groundings, and illegal spills in the middle of the traffic visualization. These sorts of big data visualizations give us a way to demonstrate large-scale data in a more effective way than just numbers or prose.

This brings up another aspect of visualizations that I think is very important. Visualizations are not just evidence that supports a given argument. They are not just data or information.  Visualizations can be argumentative. Sure you might want to add some prose to explain or flesh out the argument, but this three-minute video mostly lets the moving image speak for itself. And I think it is more powerful because of that.

Finally, if visualizations can be argumentative then we, as critical humanists, must evaluate these visualizations as arguments–meaning we need to consider intentionality and purpose when analyzing the strength and value of these visual arguments. Much like a photograph or a work of art, these visualizations have a purpose and a message that affects the way they are constructed or displayed. This intentionality must be critically examined when evaluating these visualizations.

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