Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Two Data Visualization Skills Historians Lack

Four Stages of Data Visualization, by Tobias Sturt at the Guardian
To create a great data visualization you need four skills. You don't have all of them. That was the message of Tobias Sturt and Adam Frost of the Guardian at a recent masterclass on data-vis held in London. The pair both work for the newspaper's "Digital Agency", a for-hire data visualization consultancy company run by the paper. Frost's role is to work with the data and find the story. Sturt determines the most appropriate chart style and the design that will help the reader interpret and engage with that data. That doesn't mean Frost knows nothing about the strengths and weaknesses of certain types of charts, or that Sturt runs away shrieking when he sees a spreadsheet. It does mean they each bring strengths to the table which allow them to create engaging visualizations that are true to the underlying data. That's what good collaborations achieve and anyone that's seen the outputs of the Guardian's team knows they're an incredibly talented group.

Where do historians fit in? I'd say most of us are like Frost. We can handle our data, be it numbers or words, or images, or material culture. We interpret what we see. And we find the story that adds the context to that data. According to Frost and Sturt, these two steps bring the integrity and meaning to the audience. But when it comes to data, words aren't always the best way to present them, and raw data in tabular form (as we've all seen so many times in journal articles) is what Frost refers to as "clarity without persuasion".

That means we need to find and work with the Tobias Sturts of the world. We need to collaborate with those with an eye for colour and form, who can take numbers and turn them into understanding. Without people like Sturt, the above visualization would be nothing more than it's raw data:
  1. Data
  2. Story
  3. Chart
  4. Design
But we get so much more from his visual representation of those four ideas, and few of us have the skills to compete with the creative power of designers. They know things we don't. They know how colours make us feel or what they imply. They know you're more likely to believe a statement written in Baskerville than Comic Sans font. They understand how your eye scans a page, what it's looking for, and how the location of certain elements on the page or the size of those elements change the way we interpret them. They know what we don't.

The question is: where are these people and do they want to work with us?

I'm afraid I'll have to disappoint you and admit: I don't know. Sturt is likely out of the price range for most academic historians. His clients tend to be corporations looking to develop their brands, or large non-profits trying to reach huge audiences. But we all know there are artists out there looking for work. It seems to me the issue may be that we havn't yet realized we need each other, so we havn't yet had to build those relationships. We could say those artists have failed to market themselves to us, but unless we let them know we're interested, we can hardly blame them for ignoring us.

So maybe the best way is to ask. Artists: how do we find you? What should we be looking for in an artist? And what would you look for in us?


Jan Oosthoek said...

Adam, I totally agree that we historians have to work more with graphical designers to get our data more effectively communicated to a wider public. But we must also learn from them and get to a point where we can do some of the design work by ourselves. That means we have to start teaching the next generation of historians these skills as well and perhaps history courses should include a module on presenting historical data. A team taught course with historians, creative writing people and graphical designers and photographers all involved. I know, it needs a lot of lobbying....

James Baker said...

AHRC network grants and their digitrans theme immediately spring to mind.

Adam Crymble said...

I definitely agree this is something that can be introduced to students in history programs. But I don't think we should encourage historians to think they can do everything. We should also encourage our little historians to know their strengths, and go out and talk to people whose strengths compliment their own.

It's more fun to work with others.

Mitchell said...

Adam, I think you will have plenty of takers for collaborations. I teach a masters course in this area, and I find students from many disciplines - including architecture for example - are well suited to data vis. Finding the territory for that collaboration is a more interesting question I think - IMO visualisation is not a linear workflow but a tangle of questions and experiments. I am interested in a "humanities" approach to visualisation that brings critical thinking to the process, rather than treating it as simply a design task. Good luck in your search! Mitchell

James Baker said...

Mitchell. I think you've touched on a common criticism of visualisations within the humanities: that they simply design as opposed to a process which includes critical thinking. That academic writing could often be accused of the same is a moot point. I guess humanities scholars are more critical of explanation via what they don't know (design) as opposed to what they do (prose).

Adam Crymble said...

Mitchell, Thanks for your comment. I'd be interested to hear from your students what would make such a collaboration rewarding on their end. Collaborating (rather than hiring) has to balance the needs of both sides. For a historian, their visualization needs may be quite conservative and have to fit within the boundaries of what a journal will accept as scholarship. That may be too stifling or unrewarding for someone looking to push the boundaries of visualization at the same time. Or it may not. I suppose it's a conversation that I havn't had enough with those visualizing experts.

James, I think the image in the post by Sturt does highlight what you're saying. I'd never really considered visualization as being a two-step process in the way that researching and writing is, but it's clear that's how designers look at it.

Elid said...

Hello, i´m graphic designer.
This is an area of ​​opportunity to practice professionally for the graphic designer.
I am currently doing Master Thesis which is a proposal to integrate a lecture on data visualization degree.
I'm from Mexico

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Lavern Galipeau said...

There has been vital prospects and details mentioned in detail and which students must needed to acquire by the time and meaning. secondary data analysis research

Adian Raharja said...

Yes, I agree with you. History becomes more interesting with accurate and interesting graphics.

Historian then, may need to be able to show history in graphic.

And to acquire that skill, a historian can take a basic course on graphic design.
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