井の中の蛙

10/17/2010

Data Visualization and Data Quality

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:28 pm

The inestimable Rob MacDougall is running a course on Digital History, and even better, he’s running it more or less publicly! I’m getting all kinds of ideas here. On the other hand, it sometimes raises surprising problems. The unit on Data Visualization includes an assigned reading that looked like something I might use for historiography, David Staley, Computers, Visualization, and History: How New Technology Will Transform Our Understanding of the Past (M.E. Sharpe, 2003). But when I started looking through it, the first ‘data visualization’ presented was an illustration of Japanese history from William McNeill’s 1963 The Rise of the West that made my teeth clench. Rob asked me to explain what’s wrong with it, which is fair.

The caption reads

In addition to information about costume, architecture, and other forms of material culture, the figures in the diagram convey meaningful information through gesture and body language, the shading of figures, their relative sizes, and their location in the diagram

That’s all true, as far as it goes. The problem, of course, is whether the diagram is conveying accurate and clear information, and on both accounts it fails. I realize that I’m being a little unfair: the McNeill book was a survey text written almost a half-century ago, and the diagram is being used as an example of potential; it’s not being cited as an up-to-date description of Japanese history that would be acceptable today. Still, it’s worth talking about.
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