More thinking about looking
November 23rd, 2005 by Tom Johnson

friend Marylaine Block once again delivers some insights directly
applicable to analytic journalism.  See the piece below where she
explains why visual statistics and infographics are essential to what
we're doing (or trying to do).

ExLibris #268  Permanent URL



by Marylaine Block

When I discussed some possible futures for reference service at the

California Library Association <>, I focused

heavily on the value we create for users by not just finding information

for them but providing context and meaning for information. One of the best

ways to do this is by presenting it visually.

This is especially important when we're talking about numbers, because the

human mind is poorly equipped to grasp the meaning of large numbers. Any

number higher than those we have worked with in our personal lives, like

the amount of our salary or our mortgage, are, for all intents and

purposes, classified together in our minds as “a whole bunch.” The real

meaning of millions, billions, and trillions is effectively beyond our

grasp (and maybe beyond the grasp of legislators who routinely deal in

these numbers); That's why I like to point people to the Megapenny project,

<>, which visually demonstrates

the substantial difference between million billion, and trillion.

Numbers conveyed in charts are more readily graspable and have more

dramatic impact than row after row of numbers in eye-glazing tables.

Consider the nice charts OCLC has provided for librarians to demonstrate

the economic impact of libraries,

<>. The visual

demonstration of how visits to libraries exceed attendance at all

professional and collegiate sports by a factor of five is a splendid

response to the question, “With Google, who needs libraries anymore?”

Take a look at how somebody displayed the results from mining data about

political books from “readers who bought this also bought these” systems at

major web booksellers: <>. That graphic

representation powerfully conveys the findings in a few seconds; the

details can be read at your leisure.

Consider also how librarians at Cornell University's Engineering Library

explained to their faculty the problem of excessive and escalating sci-tech

journal prices, <>.

(Librarians, of course, are the fools publishers can count on to buy The

Journal of Applied Polymer Science rather than the Toyota Corolla.) This

visual demonstration was an important tool librarians used to convince

faculty to join the fight to control the costs of scholarly publishing.

Those of us who have frequently used reference books like The Timetables of

History, or Who Was When already understand the way that concurrent visual

timelines can contextualize any subject. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and

art, literature, music, science, and historical events coexisting at the

same time inevitably influence each other. The history of medicine and the

history of photography have seen significant advances in wartime, for

example. The music of Wagner and the philosophy of Nietzsche had a powerful

ipact on the development of the National Socialist party in Germany. To

help our users understand those coexisting influences, you can send them to

concurrent timeline sites like HyperHistory,


Mapping is another valuable way of providing context for information. The

Perry-Castaneda Library Map Collection at the University of Texas helps

illuminate current news stories by providing current and historical maps

<>. Consider how much more comprehensible

the conflict in Iraq is when you view maps that show the Distribution of

Ethnoreligious Groups and Major Tribes, or Land Use, or the distribution of

oil facilities <>.

When people need information specific to their own community, Google Maps

<> allows you to

create localized topical maps easily. Feed in “Restaurants near

AddressOfYourLibrary” and you'll get a map you can duplicate and hand out

to your patrons (which I would urge you all to do).

As people ask you for local information, consider whether they'd benefit

from having you display it as a Google map. Here are just a few of the ways

people have been using Google Maps: to map the locations for best gas

prices (<>); public transit stops near a

given location (see <>);

traffic information (see <>); sex offenders (see

<>); Wireless Hotspots (see

<>). I'm sure you can think of lots more


A particularly powerful form of mapping is Geographic Information Systems

(GIS), which the GIS Dictionary at ESRI defines as “an integrated

collection of computer software, spatial data, related information, and

supporting infrastructure used to visualize and analyze spatial

relationships, model spatial processes, and manage spatial information.”

(See <> and

<> for more information on

GIS). By allowing you to superimpose on each other multiple types of

information with geographic coordinates, it's a powerful tool for analyzing

relationships between data — between, say, a community's geology,

drainage, and proposed development, or between a library's buildings, its

service area, and the demographic communities within it.

A necessary caveat because of the very power of graphic representations,

however, is their capability for distorting information. We knew this even

before people started using PhotoShop to alter images. After all, the mere

fact of where you choose to stand to take a picture and what you select to

shoot alters the “reality” revealed by the picture; those choices allow you

to make a demonstration sparsely attended, or so big it shut the city down,

or to make its participants everyday middle-class people, or obvious

radicals and nutcakes.

Consider the famous red state/blue state map

<>. Because this map

represents physical space occupied by states awarded under a

winner-take-all electoral system, it appears to show Democratic voters

hanging on by their fingernails to the edges of a continent that is

rejecting them.

Arrow down through that web site and you'll see that, since much of that

physical red-state space has more cows than people, a cartogram that skews

the size of the states to correspond to the population of those states

provides an entirely different view. Arrow down still further and you'll

understand how, with electoral votes awarded by state, the

red-state-blue-state depiction made states with substantial pockets of both

red and blue voters look more monolithic than they actually are; the

speckled county by county map gives a far better presentation of a country

that's not so much red and blue as a mix of both.

That's why when we use a tool as powerful as graphics to illuminate

information, it's especially incumbent on us to document and explain our

sources and methods fully, and to explain any assumptions embedded in the

data as imaged. It's our obligation, as information professionals, to honor

the data, and to honor our users.

* * * * *

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