If someone were to talked to me about something that has the word “data” sporadically popping up when I was a middle schooler, I would, in no time, give him an awestruck look and secretly categorize him as either having a high-profile government officer family background or having a high-tech geeky father who has the ability to hack into every single website he can possibly think of. Not until some years later did I realize that its not an intangible sacred matter that ordinary people like me will never be able to encounter in life. Data, just like electromagnetic wave, is everywhere. As a matter of fact, our living environment is flooded with data and we live and breathe it all the time. Though it’s amorphous and sometimes highly abstract, it’s a real thing that occupies every aspect of our modern lives (in which case, I might as well treat the word “data” as being in its original plural form, rather than a concept). It remains an inscrutable concept to me. But in the context of digital humanities, I oftentimes tentatively think of it as a form of digital representation of information and knowledge.
A whole spectrum of data are out there, like petroleum reservoir buried deep under sea. What we have been endeavoring is to tap into and manipulate them for our benefit. The big question remains “how.” This reminds me of a Ted talk I watched awhile back, in which the speaker, Jake Porway, the founder of Datakind, speculates the possible approaches to bridge the giant gap between data gathering and data utilization. According to him, most data are gathered and owned by the government, which doesn’t have enough skills to turn those raw data into valuable information that can bring people practical benefits. One of the problem is that the way they present data is highly incomprehensible and thus no one would care to analyze them. That’s the primary reason he started Datakind initiative that helps to match the skilled people that have the capability to take advantage of the large chunk of data with the government, and find real-world solutions to some dominant issues.
Following this line of inquiry, I think my childhood deification of data as something mysterious and the discrepancy between data gathering and usage, though seemingly entirely irrelevant, actually have a certain similarity, which is they both result from the terrible method data are conventionally presented. Average people that are not data-savvy basically have no chance to be exposed to the type of data that might somehow direct their lives. Even if they do, it’s impossible for them to read and analyze them in order to fulfill their purposes. With these concerns in mind, I was stunned by how much data visualization can do to simplify our unfulfilling and disappointing experience of data interpretation.
Surfing one of the most popular data visualization website “FlowingData” was an interesting experience. Most of the topics are somewhat relevant to or a direct reflection of an aspect of our daily life, and are presented in a foolproof, straightforward, and engaging manner. The reason why it’s “popular” is perhaps because it’s more geared towards popular taste in choosing topics and less academic- or statistic-heavy. Some of the topics are even entertaining rather than purely educational. But it’s exactly where its beauty lies. A lot of times, people are just too busy or too lazy to care about something that’s not going to affect their interests in a short term, especially when it’s inscrutable and tedious. So data visualization sites like FlowingData makes interpreting data a simple and fun experience, which is just what people need. And frankly, I almost became addicted to it after having spent an hour on it.
For example, one of the topics that struck me as novel is a mapping of “regional personality. The maps are visually appealing and easy to grasp. If someone happens to be intrigued by this and feels like reading more serious information, such as who this conclusion was reached, he/she can simply click on the link that leads them to the original source, which is a published journal essay.
There are, of course, more academic-oriented data-visualization tools that help researchers generate visualized data like Gephi, which, in my test, helped to build a graphic network that shows the intricate relationships among people in Les Misérable. Just like data itself, data visualization is a not-so-old concept that has a great deal of potential awaiting people to tap into. Stay tuned.
Source: “Regional Personality,” flowingdata.com, Oct. 21, 2013.