Visualizing Data: Part 1: Mapping the 21st Century

by | Nov 2, 2020 | 0 comments

By: Nancy K. Herther (writer, consultant and former Sociology/Anthropology Librarian, University of Minnesota Libraries

From early prehistoric cave art to the 6th century BC  Babylonian Map of the World to William Playfair’s 18th century presentation graphic systems that we know so well today: Pie and bar charts, line and area charts for complex data:  Visualization has been an essential way people have used to present complex information throughout history. Maps helped explorers and navigators as well as providing new ways to see and analyze data. 

Data Visualization isn’t entirely new, with many famous examples of using visual representation as a way to convey and analyze events. For :

Visualization from Indiana U’s Library

With the rise of Big Data, visualization has really taken off.  Although spreadsheets and data tables still prevail in business and education, new types of representation are working to make information far more accessible and understandable than ever before. 

With the 1982 publication of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Edward Tufte nearly single-handedly recreated the field of information design and representation. Instead of focusing on persuasion (think: PowerPoint), Tufte argued that information graphics need to first-and-foremost inform people and not oversimplify or remove key details in its representation, or even worse, use representations that hide or ignore key insights. Tufte demonstrated this with his analysis of the inaccuracy of conclusions of the report of the NASA’s Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. This was like the shot heard ‘round the world.

Tufte made it clear that both “clutter and confusion are failures of design, not attributes of information.” His books and presentations focus on the need to understand and carefully deal with the innate complexity that information in our Big Data era represents.  To Tufte, data presentation is both a fundamental requirement and an important opportunity to provide context and understanding.  His goal: To create “visual displays rich with data are an appropriate and proper complement to human capabilities to sort, filter, prioritize, select, edit, highlight, group, pair, focus, organize, condense, reduce, choose, abstract, isolate, cluster, aggregate, summarize, itemize, review, flip through, scan.”

Today, the number of applications for good data mapping are everywhere:  Google is using real-time satellite data and mapping to show firefighters in fire-ravaged western U.S. to more precisely target wildfires. Johns Hopkins University has created a constantly updated COVID-19 Dashboard in order for anyone to quickly get data, maps of disease hot-spots and links to new research releases. As the World Economic Forum noted: “During the first half of 2020 when more than two-thirds of the world’s population was in lockdown, many of us were transfixed by a map. The alarming red and black display, produced by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, tracks the evolution of COVID-19, the most devastating virus of the past 100 years.

In working to understand vaccine resistance, researchers in a recent Lancet article developed a “large-scale retrospective data-driven analysis, we examined global trends in vaccine confidence using data from 290 surveys done between September, 2015, and December, 2019, across 149 countries.” The goal of identifying those communities across the globe in which more intense educational efforts will be required.  The results of the European Union-sponsored research was “the largest study of global vaccine confidence to date, allowing for cross-country comparisons and changes over time. Our findings highlight the importance of regular monitoring to detect emerging trends to prompt interventions to build and sustain vaccine confidence.”

“At least half of the global population currently lacks access to essential health services, challenging the ability of development stakeholders to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 3 over the next 10 years,” a recent Data for Development report notes. “The need to fill in data gaps and create reliable maps calls for new methods to track both access to health services and the spread of diseases. Satellite imagery and data hold promise as key tools for this, with satellites’ ability to rapidly cover remote areas and see things that people can’t always detect on the ground.”

A recent article in Nature Human Behavior described new efforts to “quantify how human movement patterns vary across sociodemographic and environmental contexts and present international movement patterns across national borders.”  The researchers used “global human mobility patterns, aggregated from over 300 million smartphone users” which included data from “nearly all countries and 65% of Earth’s populated surface, including cross-border movements and international migration.” The scale and coverage “enable us to develop a globally comprehensive human movement typology.”

Due to a “lack of accurate and scalable data..geographic variation of human movement [has remained] largely unknown” until now. Using “aggregated from over 300 million smartphone users…aggregated from over 300 million smartphone users [and covering] 65% of Earth’s populated surface” the international team of researchers found, as reported in a recent Nature Human Behavior article, “human movement laws apply at 10 times shorter distances and movement declines 40% more rapidly in low-income settings.”

INFORMATION AS AN OPEN AND USABLE RESOURCE FOR RESEARCHERS

“To date, potential uses of open data in learning are not well understood,”  However, several drivers could add impetus to this. Within the open data movement there is a desire to find ways to broaden public engagement (Shadbolt et al. 2012). There are also wider calls for data literacies to be considered as a key twenty first century skill set (Wolff et al. 2016). The Open Data Charter, which has been adopted by 17 national and 35 local governments to date, includes a principle to “engage with schools and post-secondary education institutions to support increased open data research and to incorporate data literacy into educational curricula.” 

Writing in Educational Technology Research and Development earlier this year, Tim Coughlan of Britain’s Open University explained that “to date, potential uses of open data in learning are not well understood. However, several drivers could add impetus to this. Within the open data movement there is a desire to find ways to broaden public engagement. There are also wider calls for data literacies to be considered as a key twenty first century skill set. The Open Data Charter, which has been adopted by 17 national and 35 local governments to date, includes a principle to “engage with schools and post-secondary education institutions to support increased open data research and to incorporate data literacy into educational curricula.” 

Another key issue that academics are dealing with today about the use and value of Open Data concerns what is being described as our post-truth society, which has been described in a 2019 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences article as “in the current political and media environment faulty communication is no longer the core of the problem. Distrust in the scientific enterprise and misperceptions of scientific knowledge increasingly stem less from problems of communication and more from the widespread dissemination of misleading and biased information.”

In a key 2013 article in Qualitative Research in Psychology, researchers noted that ”the opportunities for mapping are as endless as the creativity of the researcher(s) and participant(s) who embrace the method…As our understanding of selves and identities, collectives and movements, become increasingly complex and lived on a variety of planes – historic, generational, geographic, digital, cultural – we believe mapping holds particular promise for theorizing, representing and analyzing complexity and shifts over time and space, for capturing the continuities and the ruptures, tracing the solid and perforated lines of lives.”

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Stanford’s Shelley Fishkin believes that mapping offers important new opportunities to connect the world’s historical and cultural collections in ways that would be unimaginable in the past: “Deep Maps, curated collaboratively by scholars in multiple locations, would put multilingual digital archives around the globe in conversation with one another, using maps as the gateway,” she writes in a fascinating 2011 article in the Journal of Transnational American Studies. “They would not displace the traditional forms in which we present our scholarship; rather they would bring our books and articles greater attention. They would be a new way of presenting our work as scholars, and a new way of encouraging our students to think about their work and ours. Deep Maps could help develop new habits of thought and lay the groundwork for new collaborative modes of research.”

Two American researchers, writing in Qualitative Research in Psychology in 2014, speak with excitement noting “the opportunities for mapping are as endless as the creativity of the researcher(s) and participant(s) who embrace the method. As our understanding of selves and identities, collectives and movements, become increasingly complex and lived on a variety of planes –historic, generational, geographic, digital, cultural –we believe mapping holds particular promise for theorizing, representing and analyzing complexity and shifts over time and space, for capturing the continuities and the ruptures, tracing the solid and perforated lines of lives.”

HARVARD WORKS TO REDEFINE THE VALUE OF THE HUMANITIES

In 2013, in response of declines in the numbers of students in the arts and humanities, Harvard University and needed changes for “reviving interest in the reflexive and analytical disciplines that make up humanistic study.” After 18 months of study and discussion focused on “strengthening the humanities in a scientific age,” with one part ironically titled “Mapping the Future.” The report stressed that “the humanities can address problems that may seem modern but that people have confronted again and again, from monarchy to feminism to ecological decline.”

The “new humanities” has reinvigorated not only the traditional disciplines but is taking many of the concepts and perspectives of these fields into the heart of the humanities. “Even as traditional majors like English and history are indeed shrinking,” The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote last year, “the past decade has also seen the rise of a new kind of humanities, including a wave of hybrid fields such as the digital humanities, environmental humanities, energy humanities, global humanities, urban humanities, food humanities, medical humanities, legal humanities, and public humanities.”

Digital Humanities, the Chronicle article concludes, “has found its way into a great many courses, certificates, research projects, and new jobs, and germinated at least 35 devoted programs and seven new journals, such as Cultural Analytics. Much like ‘literary theory’ in the 1970’s and ’80’s, the digital humanities has become a standard part of graduate education: A grad student can’t go on the job market without it.” 

A MASSIVE NEW WAVE OF DISCOVERY AND SCHOLARSHIP

“The first generation of World Wide Web capabilities rapidly transformed retailing and information search,” Mitchell Waldrop wrote in a 2008 issue of Scientific American. “More recent attributes such as blogging, tagging and social networking, dubbed Web 2.0, have just as quickly expanded people’s ability not just to consume online information but to publish it, edit it and collaborate about it – forcing such old-time institutions as journalism, marketing and even politicking to adopt whole new ways of thinking and operating.” 

On establishing an Open Data Initiative, the World Bank noted that: “Similar to other global commodities, data has significant potential to provide benefits. In fact, data has been referred to as the new oil, because while both data and oil have intrinsic value, they both must be “refined” or otherwise transformed to realize their full potential. When government data are made accessible and re-usable, they enable individuals, organizations and even governments themselves to innovate and collaborate in new ways.” 

Last year, entrepreneur Ariel Seidman described a future in which visualizing information and data would lead to “living maps” offering unimaginable change and benefits.  “Like good eye candy, a static satellite map of Paris is enjoyable for a few moments, while a living map of Paris precisely understands how each city block, building, and street sign has changed in the last five hours. A living map is aware of its history and understands important changes taking place in the physical world. Users can watch changes play out before their eyes helping them gain valuable insights into how a city, park, building, or road is changing.” 

In the second part of this look at digitization and ‘living maps,’ we look at some of the key projects that have already made an impact and how the academy itself is changing, growing and creating new insights and solutions to global problems we could never address until now.

Nancy K. Herther is a writer, consultant and former librarian with the University of Minnesota Libraries 

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