Home 9 Against the Grain 9 Visualizing Data Part 2: Data, Data Everywhere

Visualizing Data Part 2: Data, Data Everywhere

by | Nov 5, 2020 | 0 comments


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

“The opportunities for mapping are as endless as the creativity of the researcher(s) and participant(s) who embrace the method,” Adrienne Colborne and Michael Smit wrote earlier this year in the Journal of Data and Information Quality. “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.”

One positive outcome of the COVID crisis is the increased sharing of data and information across the globe for both understanding the disease and coordinating treatments. However, we are seeing the development of very new and novel ways to get the needed data for these research projects. A recent posting at the Chemistry World website explains how citizen scientists are meeting the COVID challenge by collecting data independently and posting it for the use of others – scientists and citizen scientists alike. “I think traditional research is hitting some limitations in its one-size-fits-all approach, and also in terms of not having enough resources or the right perspectives,” the post quotes citizen scientist  Karolina Alexiou, a citizen scientist working as part of Open Humans. “Citizen science can provide new avenues to all that.”

The Open Humans byline is to “explore, analyze, and donate your data – doing research together!” and brings volunteers from across the globe to work jointly to study specific health issues and work with researchers to promote research from the ground up. The organization includes nearly ten thousand members and employs “51 tools & activities are running on the site.” 

As Scientific American describes this movement, just as some people donate their bodies upon death to medical science, Open Humans is a way to greatly increase the data/information on specific diseases or activities and share that data openly with researchers across the globe with the goal of speeding up the process of developing treatments and better understandings of the disease process. 

Harvard’s Personal Genome Project is another project dependent on the voluntary participation of individuals to explore and further science through their own contributions. “In traditional research projects, participants give samples and trait information to researchers. Usually, data in such studies is closely guarded until publication, and rarely shared in a form that would allow fellow scientists to reproduce their findings or use the same material or data for studies that may even be unrelated to the original study goals. In addition, most studies do not seek consent to share individual genetic data publicly. However, for other researchers to make use of that same data, the connection between an individual’s trait information or health care records and their genetic data is critical to scientific understanding, advancement and reproducibility.”


Harvard’s Rob Kitchen published one of the key treatises, The Data Revolution: Big Data, Open Data, Data Infrastructures and Their Consequences, in 2014.  In the book he declares that “a data revolution is underway, one that is already reshaping how knowledge is produced, business conducted, and governance enacted, as well as raising many questions concerning surveillance, privacy, security, profiling, social sorting, and intellectual property rights.”

“Due to the confluence of several emerging developments in computing, methodological techniques,” Kitchen wrote, “and the political and economic realm, the volume, variety, velocity, resolution, and availability of data, and how data are being processed, analysed, stored, and employed to leverage insight and value, is being radically transformed.” 

The excitement of researchers is palpable. – and the breadth and depth of research projects that are being created in classrooms, community organizations and research labs is astonishing.  Here are just a few noteworthy projects worth a good look:

Boston’s map of changing neighborhoods

Boston Neighborhood Change Interactive Map, a new tool developed by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University allows users to visualize a variety of demographic, social, and economic changes in the Boston Metropolitan Statistical Area between 1990 and 2016.

OpenStreetMap, a free global map now has over 2 million registered users who are able to collect data – by surveys, GPS, aerial photography or other methods – and the data is uploaded and made available under Open Database License to anyone needing information. 

Mapping Prejudice:  Focused on illuminating the “hidden histories of race and privilege in the urban landscape,” this University of Minnesota project focuses on covenants that created demographic patterns that remain in place in Minneapolis today.

Segregated Seattle, based in the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project at the University of Washington, focuses on racial covenants useful to contemporary researchers and activists in understanding how ideas about race have historically shaped real estate law and housing policy in that area.  

Mapping Inequality from the University of Richmond’s Digital Lab has digitized New Deal redlining maps to illuminate how federal policy makers “used racial criteria to categorize lending and insurance risks.”

Potawatomi Trail of Death provides a searing look at governmental efforts to ‘remove’ native peoples from their ancestral homelands by order of the U.S. government in 1838.

America’s Growing News Deserts from the editors of the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) began as a data visualization identifying local newspaper offices but has encouraged data mappers to add more accurate location data related to media closures across the country.

European Commission’s Urban Data Platform established to facilitate data sharing and encourage comparative research across the EU. The platform’s Strate-board, for example, provides users with information on a broad range of topics at both local and regional levels.


Dr, Tim Coughlan

Dr. Tim Coughlan is Senior Lecturer in the Institute of Educational Technology at the UK’s Open University sees major sea changes in how data is transforming scholarship across the disciplines:  “Helping us all the better understand data is a hugely important challenge. It needs to be something we learn and are exposed to in our education. Open data is a material that can work well to teach data literacy and data can be found that is relevant to most topics or subject areas. Open data can be more interesting to learners because it can show real information about their local area or about issues that are on the news”

“Community activists and journalists can often find it necessary to ask or lobby for data that they need to understand issues to be released openly’” Coughlan explains. “There needs to be a kind of virtuous circle where open data is getting used by the general public and the value of that is recognised by governments or other organisations. They are then likely to invest further effort in releasing data, and making that data easier to use. If open data becomes more visible to the public and used by the public then there is greater impetus to have high quality data sharing.”

Jennifer Grek Martin

The very concept of “mapping” and the role of “geography” across the disciplines seems to have changed dramatically in recent years. Jennifer Grek Martin, Lecturer at the Dalhousie University’s School of Information Management explains how data is changing her teaching and research: “The change means I can teach students about mapping and geography! I used to teach Cartography in another department, but now I am teaching Geospatial Information Management in a Master of Information program and I am encouraged to bring in geographic data and information topics into the other courses I teach.” 

“Ever since the spatial turn in the humanities about 30 years ago,” Martin reflects, “the importance of place – how people think and feel about the places they inhabit and how those places affect sense of self – has become increasingly discussed and debated. 


A 2016 article by researchers from Northumbria University in Great Britain defined neogeography as a new movement that has evolved from Geographical Information Systems (GIS) research “to become increasingly multidisciplinary and the resulting social and ethical issues that have emerged constitute a field of study for those interested in posing and investigating questions involving this technology and its consequences for society.” Their article went on to postulate that this new movement “can result in the democratization of GIS and geospatial data but may also constitute new methods of exclusion depending on technological and societal barriers. Neogeography can also result in empowerment, but this is difficult to define and is often highly contingent on local context.”

In his groundbreaking Journal of Location Based Services article in 2009, Michael Goodchild reflected on the changing nature of geographic information and presentations with the introduction of new software systems, the Internet and public interest in creating and using data for maps and visualizations.  Calling this era neogeography, “a blurring of the distinctions between producer, communicator and consumer of geographic information,” 

Goodchild focused on what Martin describes as “the ability for the layperson to create maps and visualizations without a firm grasp of cartographic theories and therefore without the ability to map things well or accurately. Take Crime Maps, for example. Many communities want these, but few places have the skills or knowledge (perhaps even legislation?) to make very good ones.”  Moving forward requires the education of all people to understand the nuances involved in graphical representations of information in order to inform and not confuse or distort.  

“When individuals knowledgeable about the information they share and the potential uses of that information by a third party, ,” Martin concludes, “they can make better decisions to protect themselves and their information online.”

In September 2020, Terra Incognita: 100 Maps to Survive the Next 100 Years was published by Penguin. The authors – Ian Goldin and Robert Muggah –  “trace the ways in which our world has changed and the ways in which it will continue to change over the next hundred years.”  The book uses both traditional interpretations and values against the current and potential possibilities. The book itself is sufficed with charts and maps to both explain and inspire readers. 

Reviewers of the book have been united in their praise: “Based on decades of research, and combining mesmerizing, state-of-the-art satellite maps with enlightening and passionately argued analysis, Ian and Robert chart humanity’s impact on the planet, and the ways in which we can make a real impact to save it, and to thrive as a species.” The authors clearly describe that “ancient impulse” we humans have to visualize or map our world.  As the authors quote Albert Einstein, “you can’t use old maps to explore a new world.” This book promises to open more doors for “seeing” our future and that of our world.  

Toronto mayor David Miller offered his own interpretation of our current era: “When you open up the data, there’s no limit to what people can do. It engages the imagination of citizens in building the city. “ 

In the last part of this series, Daniel Sauter, Director of Data Visualization at Parsons School of Design of The New School and Associate Professor of Art, Media and Technology will provide his views of this amazing new chapter. Sauter is also Co-Director of the Integrative PhD Fellowship Program, where he is fostering integrated research in design and the social sciences at the New School. One of the key individuals working in this “transition of data as information and information as data” – call it NeoGeography or what you will –  and how we can expect it to change scholarship, the disciplines and our future is the subject of Part 3 of this series, as ATG interviews Dr. Sauter.

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


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