Infoviz and New Literacies

By Elijah Meeks | February 12, 2012

Melissa Terras’ recent visual summary of the Digital Humanities has brought attention to the growing vibrancy (and budgets) of the DH community.  It also feeds the cycle of debate about the efficacy, role and usefulness of visual display of information, especially the aesthetically pleasing kind.  Some scholars have responded with a criticism of the infographic as being misapplied or little more than a sales pitch.  While popular conception of digital humanities work has data visualization featured prominently, within and outside the community the value of that work is widely debated.

Not so long ago, information visualization in the digital humanities rested firmly on the general principles of clarity and brevity typified by Edward Tufte and utilized not only in generic data visualization but also spatial data visualization.1 The problem with this conceptualization of information visualization is that works like Tufte’s are dominated by the expectation that such objects be immediately comprehensible to a lay audience.  These are the infographics of such growing popularity and are meant for busy media consumers and executive summaries.  Charlie Park, in an exploration of when to use a particular visual method known as a slopegraph, highlighted this issue in relation to Oliver Uberti’s use of a slopegraph to represent health care spending efficacy:

Uberti also gave some good reasons for drawing the graph the way he did originally, with his first point being that “many people have difficulty reading scatter plots. When we produce graphics for our magazine, we consider a wide audience, many of whose members are not versed in visualization techniques. For most people, it’s considerably easier to understand an upward or downward line than relative spatial positioning.”

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