Digital is the New Normal; Visual is the New Text.

Deep Social

The most prevalent conversation at November’s Web Summit focused on the next phase of Social Media.  In all accounts and tellings,  it appears that we are moving away from the useless pursuit of more likes and followers towards smaller private networks. This, it is envisaged, will allow for a tightening of algorithms, an increase in Adblocking, and a filtering out of an enormous amount of bad advertising as we retreat to our private networks.  In doing so, we move away from Baudrillard‘s exaltation of images, to narrowing our view and exalting only those images we have pre-specified. With Adblocking  it is now possible to protect ourselves from the “tyranny of the image”, the visual equivalent of Philip K Dick’s papula, at least in the realm of online advertising.

The algorithms and filters will be so tightened that one will see less and less irrelevant advertising until we are looking at only the content we believe to be relevant to us, a move from a marketing mindset to a publisher mindest. The realisation that we are overwhelmed by too much data seems to have finally struck home and the retreat into smaller more private networks will allow for more relevant connections in the realm of what has come to be referred to as Deep Social.  By specifying content, it will be more possible for advertisers to excite and reach people with exactly the type of brands and images in which they are interested. The precision that this affords creates a new form of branding demographics – so that rather than looking broadly at the 25- 40 year old group, one may target a group that is interested in specific products, for example, those who profess an interest in hockey and literature, or perhaps cooking and skiing. Such a group would be tracked and targeted across all age ranges. As viewers, we are becoming more empowered to choose exactly on what we direct our gaze. This new level of sophistication is predicted to extend beyond the realm of advertising,  empowering viewers to shape and hone their exposure to images across all instances of visual content.

An Immense Phantom Concourse.

Visual communication was the earliest medium of expression with paintings on cave walls and hieroglyphics ranking among the first expressions. As time progressed, communication became more text driven,  Drucker identifies the “Judeo-Christian traditions that cast a pejorative judgment on all sensual aspects of experience” as one of the reasons for the dominance of text in more recent centuries.  Perhaps now is again the time for the ascendance of the visual. It certainly seems a possibility when considering the dominance of images over text on digital media.   In a community of  400 Million, 80 million photos per day are posted to Instagram, a Google search of mainstream newspapers such as  The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian indicates the extent to which photography is now leading journalism. Today it seems that instead of the journalists searching for images to accompany a story, it is the visuals themselves that drive the narrative.

Outside the realm of professional journalism, the rise of citizen journalism and the participatory nature of new media results in newsfeeds populated by users youtube videos. User generated content ranks high across many platforms, the general public’s digital photos are often posted as central components of reporting however unchecked for bias and truth they may transpire to be. Add to this the sensationalist clickbait images now prevalent in the social media feeds of many newspapers, and it becomes obvious that we are moving increasingly further away from the nuance or context provided by text.

Another trend away from the traditional, in both digital news reporting and in advertising, is the use of gifs. These animated images are appearing more and more frequently, sequencing the narrative  in visual format. Even without the use of gifs, we still witness the use of sequential photos.  Increasingly stories and adverts are appearing with more than one photo in order to develop the narrative visually. This demands that we learn a new language, understanding and interpreting a narrative through imaging sequencing. It seems very probable that the visual is indeed in the ascendant, but what are the dangers of allowing it to replace text?

The most immediate danger of “visual as the new text” centres on our natural instinct to believe that images and photographs are describing the world realistically. Without contextualising the image with text or with the addition of an accurate and descriptive caption, the viewer can be easily misled.  Add to this the growth of digital manipulation and the doctoring of images and there lies the potential for serious misuse.

Death in the Browser Tab.

9C2A173A-8C04-4834-A84F-87890E001D59.png“Falling Soldier,” from the Spanish Civil War  Credit Robert Capa/Magnum Photo, the veracity of this image is now contested.

Images alone are not enough to even approximate an accurate representation of reality, especially given the new technological tools of manipulation. As we look back over visual communication in the last century we realise that image manipulation also took place in the days before Photoshop.  One example is ‘Falling Soldier’ Robert Capra’s celebrated photo from the Spanish Civil War, which has  been dismissed as a fake.  “Art is always manipulation, from the moment you point a camera in one direction and not another,” Ángeles González-Sinde, Spanish cultural minister has commented on visiting the Robert Capra exposition last month.

While photographic images of death like those from the Spanish Civil War have been in the public domain in the last century, these are now easily accessed online, even mainstream news stations provide links to the police shootings of citizens and describe terrorist videos of beheadings, with barely a trigger warning.
In response to this proliferation, I particularly value the musings of  Teju Cole.   One of my favourite authors, he is also an incredibly talented photographer and essayist, he is a true Renaissance Man. Cole also writes as photography critic for the New York Times. It was here I read his newspaper piece  Death in the Browser Tab.   I returned to this piece on reading of the of the release of the dash-cam footage of Laquan McDonald’s death (I have chosen not to provide a link to the footage.)
Cole writes “A video introduces new elements into the event it records. It can turn a private grief into a public spectacle, set popular opinion at odds with expert analysis.” The power of this medium to communicate death has not been fully weighed up, in part because it is still in fledgling state.
 “The videographic afterimage of a real event is always peculiar. When the event is a homicide, it can cross over into the uncanny: the sudden, unjust and irrevocable end of the long story of what one person was, whom he loved, all she hoped, all he achieved, all she didn’t, becomes available for viewing and reviewing.”
Cole describes how the peculiarities of such videos the “combination of a passive affect and the subjective gaze, irregular lighting and poor sound, the amateur videographer’s unsteady grip and off-camera swearing.”  is a necessarily incomplete version of the story, because the video or the image mediates the event of death.  We can exit the browser; sometimes images are are too much and also not enough.


Baudrillard Simulcra and Simulation

Philip K Dick


More Adblocking and move from marketing to publishing mindset.

Johanna Drucker

Whitman on photography: An Immense Phantom Concourse

Instagram Blog

Teju Cole

What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name?: A Response to Blog Themes

Deadlines! November 04 was the date for our first blog post, indeed for our first piece of submitted work in the DHC year.  As a class we had created a Facebook group, during the day classmates posted the URL of their blogs.   It is outside the periphery of this blog post to respond fully to such a vast array of interesting discussions;  instead I will need to limit myself to exploring a theme that both Nora and Annie addressed in their posts: defining the field.  At the evolution or outset of a new movement the struggle to name and establish principles and parameters is one of the overriding concerns of the birthing process.  The definition it accepts or accords itself has a huge bearing  on how it is perceived and the tasks with which it occupies itself.

Defining Digital Humanities
Defining Digital Humanities

The struggle for definition.

I recognised Nora’s struggle to explain to friends exactly what the Digital Humanities module of her PhD constituted. My reading on this particular anxiety had centred around the work of Liu, Panapaker and Svensson  – the texts assigned for our first DHC class.  The various viewpoints mentioned in the articles ranged from the view of DH as outré and a danger to the humanities to casting DH as the saviour of the humanities, a transformational discipline.
I believe a definition should include a nod to how the discipline can contribute to reducing the inequalities in society and how the splicing together  of Technology and the Humanities can enhance that contribution.  An article in Friday’s Guardian bemoans the lack of awareness around this issue by many of the proponents of the digital at the WebSummit.  Although I concede that some of the points are fair, I feel it fails to acknowledge efforts of some developers at the summit.  I sat mainly at the content stage where a number of the speakers did emphasise the relevance and importance of technologies to the underrepresented.  Of particular relevance is Blippar founder Ambarish Mitra who, quoting the figures that 1/7 of the world can’t even read and write and 2/7 have only basic literacy, contends that the next mass communication movement will be the visual and sees Blippar and Augmented Reality as going some way towards reforming the education system for those who cannot read.  If DH is to be understood as a democratising force then we must make every effort address underrepresentation.

Crowdsourcing is dead-Long live Citizen Humanities!

Annie tackled the issue of Crowdsourcing, another area that struggles with its definition. Annie offered a critique of the definitions posited by Merriam-Webster and by Stuart Dunn.  To this I’d like to add Simon Tanner, who in his blog takes issue with the roots of the definition, he advocates a move away from the task centred definitions offered by Howe and others and posits a desire to kill the ‘NeoLibralistic’  roots of the definition of crowdsourcing. He proclaims “Crowdsourcing is dead -Long live Citizen Humanities”
There certainly is a concerted effort to change the name by which the movement is commonly known. Jeff Howe’s Wired article of 2006 is often creditied with coining the neologism, however even he tries to disown it! On Howe claims to have hated the word from the start, claiming it was just a working title and “It was so pandering, so typical of Silicon Valley.” In any case the general consensus amongst the community is that the definition is no longer relevant.
In true collaborative form the speakers and organisers of the Citizen Humanities Comes of Age Conference posted a collective message:  “The models of participation discussed at the symposium could not be further removed from the notion or the application of the term famously coined by Jeff Howe in 2006…. ..‘citizen humanities’, like ‘citizen science’ has connotations of investment, participation and belonging – or rather choosing to belong.”
The very process of citizen humanities or crowdsourcing can be hugely beneficial,  especially when it comes to the cultural heritage sector.  Surely one of the benefits of cultural heritage crowdsourcing is in getting people to access the archives, the stacks or the artefacts; essentially to engage with the collection while tagging, digitising or enhancing it.  This point is elucidated by Trevor Owens “Transcripts and other data are great, but when done right, crowdsourcing projects are the best way of accomplishing the entire point of putting collections online.” Rather than just consuming, there is a process of enhancement and engagement.
 So why do the negative associations persist with the changing of the name? Despite the insistence by proponents  that they are a world away from outsourced labour and exploitation it cannot be denied that digital innovation does create new forms of inequality, as Astra Taylor puts it “we are witnessing not levelling of the cultural playing field, but a rearrangement with new winners and losers”.
The Internet reflects real-world inequalities as much as it reduces them. Cultural products are primarily valued as opportunities for data collection, while creators receive little or no compensation for their efforts.

The Ghosts in the Digital Machine

As an example,  let’s look at Amazon’s  Mechanical Turk (MTurk). This crowdsourcing tool, sometimes offering payment,  was amongst the tools discussed in our crowdsourcing lecture – we picked the words from an image map in the lecturer’s slides.  A definition from Wikipedia is perhaps appropriate, given the topic at hand: “(MTurk) is a crowdsourcing Internet marketplace that enables individuals and businesses…. to coordinate the use of human intelligence to perform tasks that computers are currently unable to do” MTurk as a crowdsourcing tool warrants a closer look;  lets examine  a recent media article  from the LA Times :

It transpires that companies hiring workers through MTurk can “reject any work without explanation. And if they reject any part of a project, they’re allowed to keep all the remaining, completed work …” A response to the blind spots around the exploitation of crowds comes from Lilly Irani, an assistant professor in communication at UC San Diego in the form of  Dynamo:

” regarding labor rights for digital workers ..she collaborated with colleagues at Stanford on a project called Dynamo, an anonymous forum launched in late 2014 where workers can propose, discuss and vote on specific collective labor actions.“Dynamo is more like a virtual union hall, a worker-only safe space where workers can post ideas about activist actions anonymously,”
Is crowdsourcing exploitative?

Digital Sharecropping?

Astra Taylor warns against allowing the economic value of culture to be concentrated in the hands of those positioned to unequally benefit from the efforts of the collective.  Striving for a definition that adequately conveys the principles of a discipline or movement is an onerous task and  no matter how robustly one tries to express the guiding philosophy and principles by naming and setting parameters around an area, there is no guarantee that the boundary will hold.  Crowdsourcing, Cloud-labour, call you what you will, there are those who believe that it has its roots in the Sweatshops and is an area open to exploitation.  Owens offered the warning “Be wary of anyone who tries to suggest we should trick people or entice them into this work. We can offer users an opportunity to deeply explore, connect with and contribute to public memory and we can’t let anything get in the way of that”  We need to generate a strong definition of what the collective effort offers and then strengthen our Cultural Commons and our labour laws for the virtual world, a system left to the free market will not deliver the transformations promised by this new digital culture.


Taylor, Astra. The People’s Platform Taking Back Power and Culture in a Digital Age Taylor. London: 4thEstate, 2014. Print. – Annie’s blog

A Cold Hand: Copyright, Repurposing and Image Appropriation in The Digital Age.

New technologies were likened to paintbrushes at websummit 2015; tools which the artist manipulates to create images and words. The creative process has been enhanced, perhaps transformed by the technologies now available. The use of these tools extends beyond the sphere of the professional artist or writer, anybody may participate, repurposing and manipulating the abundance of existing digital material as a springboard to launch new creations. However, the fluidity of  participatory culture is hampered by problematic copyright law and an uncertainty around the understanding of fair use. Potential solutions would fill many pages, virtual and real. Within the scope of this blog I’d like to frame a couple of thoughts on the need for protection both for creators and for those who seek to repurpose the work.
The cold hand of copyright.
Copyright law is a complex and emotive issue, in A Companion to Digital HumanitiesKolker likens copyright and IPR to a ‘cold hand’, casting it as one of the greatest hindrances to using digital interventions in creative work.  Jensen, in the same volume, compares copyright to cancer, arguing that its principles are currently “metastasising in ways unhealthy for our culture”. Both authors see excessive copyright in the digital world as dampening creative efforts, a point illustrated by the Communia Association diagram below.
Leonhard Dobusch: Copyright Extremism Curve
Creative Commons.
 And yet creatives must have protection around the ownership of their work,  a response to these concerns comes in Laurence Lessig’s Creative Commons which offers many options for licensing and sharing of work – under the tagline “Keep the Internet Creative, Free and Open”.  In the commercial sphere however, the system advocated does appear to be most useful merely as a traffic light system, a means of illustrating how a particular piece of work may be used. Licensing categories are depicted through descriptive icons, useful to demonstrate usage at a glance. However the system is unsatisfactory in terms of enforcing the advocated usage.
For example, Creative Commons advocates a crediting system as one tier of licensing, under this licence  work is attributed to its original creator. From a purely commercial standpoint, there are advantages to this system, it may boost awareness of the artist’s name or brand, leading to a rise in profit, perhaps an increase in online followers which ultimately may lead to more work and commissions.
However, benefiting from attribution only makes commercial sense in some creative sectors, mainly those that are text-based.  It is difficult to attribute an image to its creator in the advertising sector where this is not an established practice. Artists are generally only credited with image creation in sectors like children’s books, (and not always then as the Pictures Mean Business campaign demonstrates). Most importantly, the attribution may be inconvenient for works based on multiple other works.
Image appropriation and fair use
Image appropriation is a hot topic amongst creatives, as is determining what constitutes fair use.  First to mind is the controversy surrounding Shepard Fairey’s use/manipulation of an Associated Press image depicting Obama. The photo formed the basis the Hope series of images created during the 2008 US presidential campaign.
Side by side image of AP photo with Fairey creation
Photo: Yosi Sergant
Does repurposing existing media content, to create art constitute fair use?  If not, then at what point does it become wrong to use it, is there a tipping point? A search on image appropriation on Creative Commons pulls up suggestions from Europeana to Sound Cloud. But in defining ‘adaptation’, Creative Commons reads ‘there is no international standard for originality, and the definition differs depending on the jurisdiction’, an unsatisfactory resolution to the question of fair use.
Mix it up
Fariey’s website outlines the process behind the creation of his Obama poster, he “grabbed a news photograph of the candidate off the Internet…… then simplified the lines and geometry, employing a red, white and blue patriotic palette…and use(d) a lot of red along with boldface words: PROGRESS or HOPE or CHANGE” In September 2012 he was sentenced to 300 hours of community service along with a fine for $25,000 in a copyright suit with AP, and yet the image now hangs in the US National Portrait Gallery.
Fairey emerges from a scene aptly described by Henry Jenkins in Convergence Culture “it should be no surprise that much of what the public creates models itself after, exists in dialogue with, reacts to or against and/or otherwise repurposes material drawn from commercial culture……the new convergence culture will be built on borrowings ” (pg 140)
Again, in his forthcoming book Participatory Culture in a Networked Era, Jenkins  argues for a move beyond individualized personal expression towards “an ethos of ‘doing it together’ in addition to ‘doing it yourself.'”  While I acknowledge that participatory culture does not give all members of society an opportunity to participate, I believe that the creativity it affords should be encouraged by providing a copyright system which encourages participation rather than threatens it. The Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998 has been written so that “no one can do to the Disney Corporation what Walt Disney did to the Brothers Grimm” according to Lessing, again cited in Convergence Culture (pg 142)
Convergence Culture
 One way of interpreting the AP/Fairey case is as Henry Jenkins’  Grassroots Convergence:
” The informal and sometimes unauthorised flow of media content …..for consumers to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recalculate”
Jenkins would perhaps cast Fairey as a grassroots intermediary, one who “actively shapes the flow of media content but who operates outside any corporate or governmental system”.  Fairey takes what is out there and repurposes it in the spirit of DIY punk appropriation.
I’m most interested in what would have happened if Fairey had made, say, the smallest gesture towards owning usage rights, if he had paid AP the minimum licence for the smallest resolution of the image. (Info on AP licensing can be found here.) AP certainly needed to take a stand on Fairey case because of the high-profile and the potential to set precedence for claims of ‘fair use’ by subsequent users, an issue highlighted by The Huffington Post
Fairey has not been shut down by this particular cold hand. Like many artists who take inspiration from graffiti, Fairey continues to create unauthorized works, telling The Detroit Free Press in May: “I still do stuff on the street without permission”, prompting a gallery owner to comment  that “He wears his warrants on his sleeve like badges of honor. He’s using the judicial system and the media to market himself. It’s a minor investment and in return his name stays relevant. He’s been doing this for years, and he’s great at it.”
Unauthorised appropriation and reuse took place throughout the twentieth century but under the Panopticon visibility afforded by the internet, we need a new clarity around copyright; today’s repurposers need a more robust system of protection from the control asserted over intellectual property.

Humanising Data through Art

The Creators Project in their ReForm study discuss how the data visualisation aspect of technology has bled out into the wider culture, forming a movement around data. This is an topic I’ve been drawn to as the MPhil in digital humanities progressed, my interest heightened as I conducted the research component of the internship module. Variations on this theme  general erasure of boundaries between visual and verbal media, or digital and text  and the the dematerialisation of the image.  The relatively new field of Visual Cultural Studies has been placed somewhere between art history and aesthetics, according to WJT Mitchell, although he concedes that this ambiguity may lead to it being cast in a supplementary role.

From ReForm a new venture by The Creators Project

In any case data visualisation is no longer the domain of academics or scientists, the sequestering has ended, now that we are all drowning in data, data visualisation bears relevance across all dimensions of work and private life.  Indeed data becomes most relevant and significant when we turn to what it tells us about ourselves, whether that is through the Fitbit on our wrist when it drives a narrative of the minutiae of our personal lives.  The latter illustrated in the Dear Data Project, a year long experiment concerned with visualising daily life.  In this project the artists “wanted to depict data with a more personal and intimate twist and in an analogue form,” and so created their visualisations on postcards.

dear data
Samples from Dear Data – a year long visualisation of daily life

Data visualisation is becoming quotidian, we can record the incidentals and seminal moments of our working and home lives. Of course there are many different ways of reading this.  Hui and Chun in their fascinating text Control and Freedom warn against the conflation of data with power, and the “almost religious belief  in the value of information”.  They coin the neologism informationology to express this endowment of value, often to useless non-objects,  just because it is or data and therefore vested with value or celebrated due to a “perversion in the will to knowledge”.

beautiful data

Mixed messages: is data always inherently valuable and beautiful or is it sometimes the reversal of Marx’s comment “a thing can be a use-value without being a value”?



The surfeit of Data Visualisation tools encountered in my research of current environment bears witness to Hui and Chun’s postulation of our almost religious belief in the value of information. The resource section of displays an array of 294 or so. In  my favour was the neat boundaries on the requirements around the visualisation for the manuscript poetry of John Donne, it was possible to scale down the 294 to a more manageable number by filtering out the more elaborate offerings superfluous to our needs.


A wide offering of data visualisation tools


The wider Mining and Mapping of Early Modern Manuscripts project encompasses my assignment, giving it a specific boundary,  rather than being an open ended task.  It is anticipated that this wider project will involve an analysis of early modern verse miscellanies. These manuscripts collect a variety of different poetry, and were built up over time as their owners had opportunity and access to other manuscripts. As such, these miscellanies offer a vivid insight into the intellectual and cultural networks of the early modern period. The project will visualise and analyse these networks and provide new insights into the operation of court and coterie poetry. The scope of my role for the  was well articulated, to write a research paper on current visualisation tools and to develop a visualisation of the instances of Donne’s poetry in early modern manuscripts.  The audience is most likely to be those from the research community, so pretty much a captive audience who are already engaged.  Nevertheless, the use of the clean and attractive graphics of the Silk tool tool hopefully create a visual hook which draws interest and readies the audience to receive the information to be conveyed. The screenshots below give a glimpse of the data visualisation or it can be viewed online here.




Screenshots of the data visualisation for the poetry of John Donne on Silk


The following table outlines some of the nuts and bolts behind the reason to choose Silk as  the data visualisation tool, although ultimately it was a decision made on the visually attractive output generated.  To my mind, this is the essence of data visualisation,  not about plotting statistics or numbers, rather being drawn to something that looks good which  then sparks an interest in what it is and leads to an interest in the information being conveyed.

Comparisons between some of the main data visualisation tools


From questioning the ideological assumptions behind big data to becoming drawn in to data art, I very much enjoyed working on this assignment.  To close with a variation on a theme from The Creators Project: my embrace of the technology has far outstripped my understanding of it. This internship on data visualisation has sparked a fascination with this powerful, expressive medium.





Sleights of Mind: Data Visualisation and Magic.

A central component of the Digital Humanites internship project requires that I develop a research paper on the current trends and tools in the field of data visualisation.  My initial reading suggests that current research and development in the field is dominated by the voices of Alberto Cairo, César A. Hidalgo , Ali Almossawi and John Grimwade.  Their writing and data visualisation products make for intriguing reading and exploration.  I am drawn to the beauty and magic of data visualisation and find myself spending hours simply experimenting with the possibilities inherent in projects like Hidalgo’s Pantheon, a visualisation tool for the study of collective memory, languages and technology.

The writing on data visualisation is equally compelling, Almossawi and Hidalgo’s magazine article in  The Scientific American draws an interesting analogy between the 17th century astronomy discoveries of Galileo to today’s data visualisations.  The authors describe data visualisation as a virtual telescope, enabling the user to find a way through the deluge of big data.  They suggest that “These tools allow us to explore the fluid landscape of bits, instead of the rigidity of atoms, giving rise to a new medium that is helping us comprehend the complex while simultaneously providing a new means of artistic expression.” The image is nicely completed with a depiction of users changing from the role of spectators to explorers.  Hidalgo is a fascinating talent in the realm of data visualisation, amongst other fields, as the video below explores.

7 Projects from the Macro Connections Group from MIT Media Lab on Vimeo.

He is involved in the creation of Data Visualisation Engines, online tools that allow people to work with the visual aspects of a data set. He is the creator of the previously mentioned  Pantheon, and of  DataViva, a tool involving one billion visualisations for the study of trade, employment and education in Brazil.  These are exciting and transformative tools,  Hidalgo’s  work flow in the creative process is itself compelling viewing, in some cases involving preparatory sketches on whiteboards, see figure 1 below. As an aside, the use of paper and pencil, or in this case whiteboard and marker seem to be integral to the end digital product for many data visualisation developers, evident again in figure 3 later in this post.


Figure 1 César A. Hidalgo Preparatory sketches, MIT Media Lab video.

Arthur C Clarke’s maxim that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic comes to mind when, in the course of my research, I become transfixed by the beauty, magic and wow factor of  some of these data visualisation tools and realise I have wandered far off task!  The project timeline forces me to adhere more strictly to the requirements of the project at hand, a data visualisation of the poetry of John Donne in 17th Century manuscripts.  I narrow my  focus to the  discovery of a tool that can efficiently and simply present and explain the data on Donne’s poetry and on the ways in which it can be significant. The more sophisticated  data visualisation engines require a certain level of mastery of the underpinning technology. For the project at hand, I maintain that a simpler visualisation tool will suffice.  It is important that it is a tool which will not require the user to invest time in the mastery of a complex technology before they can attempt to decipher the data.

John Grimwade warns against this, apparently common, tendency to fall in love with the magic and complexity of the visualisation tool, rather he stresses the importance of placing the information in context.  He suggests that this contextualisation is done with annotations rather than making the assumption that the user will be happy to take on the role of editor and spend time teasing out a complex data visualisation in order to figure out the meaning of the data.

This clarity of meaning as a defining feature of a successful data visualisation is a theme expanded upon in Albert Cairo’s profile of Grimwade in The Functional Art. Here Grimwade and Cairo discuss the the failure of data visualisation developers to prioritise clear communication of information rather than the development of a beautiful but complex tool requiring the mastery of technology.  Instead, they see the purpose of visualising data as primarily to explain or describe a topic by revealing patterns, from which the user can easily  draw conclusions.  Again, it is to facilitate further explorations from these conclusions rather than to turn the user into a data analyst.

This point is usefully demonstrated by investigating Grimwade’s creative process in developing a data visualisation or infographic as outlined in The Functional Art, see figure 2.

visualisation the fuctional art

Figure 2 Grimwade’s Transatlantic Superhighway reproduced in The Functional Art

In the flow of developing the visualisation above Grimwade worked as a reporter but also as an editor, annotating and placing the information in context.  His work in process is not born with digital coding but rather involves using pencil and paper for sketching and note taking  in an effort to isolate the key elements of the topic, as demonstrated in figure 3.

grimwade.pngFigure 3 Preparatory sketches for the data visualisation depicted in The Functional Art

Grimwade, in conversation with Cairo discusses the creation of “amazing interactive tools with tons of bubbles, lines, bars, filters, and scrubber bars” but steers the reader to

“Think of Hans Rosling and the way he interacts with his wonderful bubble visualizations. He doesn’t just show stuff; he explains the main points, focusing the reader’s attention on the most interesting parts of the information. After that, if readers want to navigate deeper into other possible stories, they can do it. But first, they are exposed to a traditional, linear narrative that lays out the basic facts.”


In my my last blog post , I discussed the problems inherent in not being sceptical of data visualisations, in accepting the information they contain more blindly than we we would do if the same information was presented in text format. At this point in my project work, I am concerned with not being seduced by the magical possiblilities inherent in data visualisation tools and their “tons of bubbles, lines, bars, filters, and scrubber bars”;  it is time to once more focus on the project timeline.



Alberto Cairo – The Functional Art

César A. Hidalgo – developer of Data Visualisation Engines

The fascinating Pantheon

MIT Data Visualisation Engines





Intern Sessions: Paper or Plasma?


Project management was the most prevalent message at the initial internship meeting in February.  A useful all round skill, it is advocated across all disciplines to optimise time management and learning.  I’ve even seen it recommended on parenting blogs as an invaluable skill to impart to young children, to better ensure a more seamless transition between ever busier school lives and extra curricular activities.

Whatever the arguments for streamlining childhood, we, students of Digital Humanities, will be applying project management philosophies to our internship module in order to ensure the smooth running and delivery of our appointed project.  At a meeting in the Long Room Hub we were presented with an interesting array of projects and I set off to read through the descriptions and to form a shortlist of preferences. I was immediately drawn to the offerings  in Marsh’s Library and to Mining and Mapping in Early Modern Manuscripts, the latter particularly as it formed part of an wider project relating the collection of poetry in 17th Century manuscripts to the social networking relationships of today

The Long Room Hub at Trinity is an inspiring meeting venue – the  place speaks of progress and of the generation of new ideas, this occasion left me with a sense of excitement about the term ahead, borne through when I managed to get my first choice of project, the Early Modern Manuscripts work.  It’s been some time since I tackled a project though the careful application of tools, milestones and the ticking off of tasks, a quick google saw a trend towards declaring all such methods obsolete, and yet the document we were first to prepare was a traditional Work Plan.  I found the exercise useful forcing me to sit with pen and paper and draw up a schedule of dates and deliverables. Appealing as pulses sound,  it transpired that the traditional Work Plan was, at the outset at least, still fit for purpose.


Brave New World: Pulses.

An initial meeting with my supervisor gave more direction and focus to the tasks ahead, I was tasked with developing a research paper outlining the visualisation tools used for presenting data, with a view to choosing one to represent the manuscript data on CELM, the Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts and on a database created by my supervisor.

I went back and forth to college in unseasonably sunny weather, all the time filtering the various elements and strands of the project. Around this time  my son required some dental surgery, so my focus was taken away from the project for some time, happily, having formulated this work plan meant the various strands were held together and easy to return to when I was ready to start back with the project once again.

I began with research into the current visualisation scene,  comprised mainly of online reading, all writing and evaluations of data visualisation seems available online, even the seminal text, Beautiful Visualisation can be more easily accessed online.  Drawing all my reading from online material caused me to feel a little uneasy.  I do like the weight of lugging books about the place, it seems to add to the impression that I am labouring to craft a piece of writing, even the ritual of checking books out at the library desk is satisfying,  the equivalent of ticking a box,  a feeling not replicated by  clicking ‘download article’.

IMG_7745 (1)
Returning my books, Michaelmas Term 2015, Trinity College.

I go with the process though, after all how often do we read that process is as important, if not more so, than product, in the realm of Digital Humanities,  I tell myself that confining my research to the online reading process may be instrumental in crafting a research paper on visualisations.  I read about visualisations being used for digital story telling for  digital portfolios, data visualisation and data journalism.  The resulting data images, video, text and embedded files become a form of data art, if you will.  I scan through procedures for cleaning the raw data, with guidelines such as no nested data, no inline tables and certainly no merged cells, to instructions on file type formats for importing.  A distinction is drawn between data illustration in the form of graphs and tables and data visualisation  the purpose of which is to alter our perspective, enhance our sense-making and lead us to seek patterns. Seeking patterns is of course a very fundamental human and animal characteristic, one way in which we seek to impose order on the chaos or random nature of the natural world.  The data we feed into the visualisation tool, in my case, the instances of the poetry of John Donne  in 17th Century manuscripts, must be subjected to the same procedures, to optimise it for import into the visualisation tool of choice.

In all my reading on Data Visualisation, it is almost consistently presented in terms of how it enhances our experience.  No longer need we labour through endless dry statistics: visualisation enlivens our exploratory and explanatory experiences with data.  This consistent extolling of the virtues of data capture and visualisation begins to nag. There must exist some drawbacks, after all,  decisions are made on what data to feed into the tool,  who then makes these decisions to measure or not measure particular instances of data? Also, just as code is political, can visualisation be always neutral? Do visualisations sometimes mislead or manipulate? One of the priciples of The London Charter, a set of guidelines for using visualisation in the cultural heritage sector,  is that we cannot be lazy with our visualisations, there is a need for rigorous guidelines and an understanding that visualising data or artefacts  comes with responsibility.

And so I find I have clicked away from my original research, one of the peculiarities of online research, for me, is my propensity to quickly  spiral off topic.  Although time consuming, and most probably against the basic tenets of project management, such wanderings are enjoyable even if they don’t always lead to serendipitious discoveries.  And so it’s not long before I’m deliberating over good data and bad data. Usman Hague, founding partner of Umbrellium, warns of the perils of fetishising data. His argument runs along these lines: by amassing data to make better decisions we are buying into the idea of humans beings as bugs in the system, Hague extends this to an outcome where we must better trust pure algorithms to make decisions,  to ensure optimal behaviour. Although the instances of Donne’s poetry in 17th manuscripts does not immediately throw up problems of engineered behaviour, I find myself thinking about whether better things must always come from data capture and from visualisation. Yes, with data visualisation, we can capture elusive patterns in data, those not apparent by simply perusing statistics, perhaps not available by simply checking a book out of our library, and reading text on a page, my preferred research method.  However, the idea that until we could visualise data, with the right tool, we were in some way profoundly lacking  insight is a problematic one.  The frequently touted analogy of  data visualisations  shining sunshine into darkness, although a neat soundbite,  does not paint a complete picture.  And yet I am persuaded by the argument on the Information for Humans blog that “Visualization is organizing one’s perspective of an abstraction, where the abstraction is due to dimension or scale that is beyond our grasp. We are too small to see the whole territory. We are too in the moment to see the progress. We need this help.”

I return to my old school project management Work Plan to force myself back on task and shut down all but one of  the  open tabs on my browser to limit my focus to the task in hand.
The map is not the territory, from The Auguries of Innocence



Flowing Data: A Review of Beautiful Visualisation

CELM Index of English Literary Manuscripts 1450-1700,

The London Charter: principles for the use of computer-based visualisation by researchers, educators and cultural heritage organisations

Umbrellium designs and builds technological tools to support citizen empowerment and high-impact engagement in cities

The blog of Information for Humans. Information lacks meaning if it isn’t illustrated in the way that we experience life.