Communicating Data: Visualizations

One of the strongest features recommending data visualization is the opportunity for effectively streamlining communication based on the immediacy and intuitive nature of our sense of sight. In the tradition of “a picture is worth a thousand words” is the acknowledgment that the information we absorb visually can be far more efficiently presented than purely with text or numbers. This is evident in mapping networks of actors, where the influence of each defined in physical space draws out an automatic reaction. Shin-Kap Han’s analysis of Paul Revere’s ride and mobilization not only revealed the unique placement of Revere and Warren in the network of revolutionary actors, as well as a visual scope of their influence, but also served to communicate the basis for a “critical corrective” regarding the incentives of brokerage.

In a fortuitously timely conversation I had with a close friend and graphic designer, I was directed to the one of the earliest influential incarnations of deliberately designed graphic representations of information. Charles Joseph Minard released this depiction of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia (1812) in 1861:

This notorious military failure is given a shape that is more directly communicative than numbers, and simultaneously tracks multiple variables (direction, temperature, location) in a single presentation. The representation, done without the aid of technology available today, still compresses a significant amount of information mapping the relative influence of multiple factors on Napoleon’s army. The visual representation of the army’s decimation has a more immediate effect and comprehensive scope than a straight recounting of losses and environmental conditions.

Clearly there are ways in which these representations are then subject to manipulations and generate different conclusions due to the variability of interpretation. Caroline Winterer mentions geographic illusions that come up in mapping the correspondence of both Franklin and Voltaire: “depending on how we interpret the maps, we can call Franklin either more peripheral than Voltaire to the republic of letters (since much of his activity emerged from the colonial periphery), or more worldly than Voltaire (since his network reached across the Atlantic)” (Winterer, 611).The near instantaneously communication of the map plots do not contribute to forming an interpretation in either direction. It is still up to the scholar to understand the nature and content of these letters, or to adopt a perspective from which to derive insight from the newly visualized data.

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