Source: Ethical Design Decisions in Data Visualization

Shazna Nessa, a journalist who has specializes in data visualization, addresses the respect a designer must have for their audience’s level of visual literacy. In her article “Visual Literacy in the Age of Data”[1], Nessa warns that with all the cool new data visualization tools, journalists working with visualizations are beginning to present toward a more specialized audience, when perhaps the audience’s level of visual sophistication has not been running apace.

I once heard that editors at the New York Times aim to bring articles to a 9th-grade reading level. As the New York Times is a respected pioneer in data visualization in journalism, I wonder if there is any formalized understanding of visual literacy that corresponds with text-reading literacy. A set of loose guidelines would certainly be helpful in establishing best practices in this area. While the journalist’s goal is to inform the public, the scholar engaging in Digital Humanities would also do well to re-evaluate their use of data visualization. For example, Nessa cites a 1984 study[2] that ranked the most efficiently decoded visual data presentations (bar graphs and scatter plots leading the way, heat maps towards the end). I think the digital humanities scholar or digital art historian, when and if they are aiming to skew their argument towards a more specialized area in a dissertation, conference paper, or journal article, must find a way to balance basic design principles and legibility when working with a sophisticated argument that may be data-driven. Regardless of who the readership is for the scholar, some of the questions Nessa recommend journalists ask themselves, such as “How many points are you trying to illustrate?“ and “Although I’ve edited the data already, is there superfluous data that I can still edit out?“ apply to the Digital Humanities scholarship world too.

This week’s readings and class discussion really made me consider the ethics involved with data visualization, and the visual literacy that may be required of a reader/viewer of this information. Data in any form does not speak for itself, it needs a human voice, or ideally many voices, to interpret it and to make a statement. And data visualized seems to run a huge risk of intentional manipulation and/or potential misunderstanding. While blatantly spouting misleading information via chart a-la-Fox News (or anyone with an agenda) is heinous, I think the responsible data visualization really begins a deep understanding of design principles, a respect for one’s audience, as well as and understanding of the raw data itself.

A quick Google search of “Ethics in Data Visualization” yielded first results of Codes of Ethics for various software companies that work with data visualization, like Tableau and These codes basically cover the importance of accuracy in data collection, data analysis, and design choices. In fact, on the blog, the author quotes a “Hippocratic oath for visualation”:

I shall not use visualization to intentionally hide or confuse the truth which it is intended to portray. I will respect the great power visualization has in garnering wisdom and misleading the uninformed. I accept this responsibility willfully and without reservation, and promise to defend this oath against all enemies, both domestic and foreign.[3]

That last part sounds a little tongue in check to me, but it is encouraging that companies are publishing statements like this. It’s almost like a blessing and a curse that data visualizations are really coming to the fore through journalism. It’s a positive in that journalism is traditionally associated with fact-checking and transparency as a tenet of the profession. But what passes for journalism is where not only visual literacy but media literacy skills generally are need to discern journalistic integrity.

On a less serious note, my image quilt was so much fun to make! When I searched the Benezit Dictionary of Artists as I was working on writing a brief bio on Albrecht Durer for my Ackland project, I saw that Benezit displays images of artist’s signatures. For an artist so exacting, his signatures when seen so close-up and separate from their corresponding artworks were so charmingly unique from each other. When compared, some even seemed a bit lopsided and sloppy, (though I’m sure this is in part due to the inexact copies coming from wood cuts ) so I thought the monogram signature a perfect fit for a quilt:

[1]Shazna Nessa, “Visual Literacy in the Age of Data”,, 13 June 2013
[2]William S. Cleveland and Robert McGill, “Graphical Perception: Theory, Experimentation, and Application to the Development of Graphical Methods”Journal of the American Statistical Association, Volume 79, Issue 387, 1984.
[3]Jason Moore qtd in Drew Skau, “A Code of Ethics for Data Visualization Professionals” Visually Blog, February 7, 2012.