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.