Seeing data everywhere

It's becoming increasingly common to encounter sophisticated interactive displays of data about political and economic affairs, as well as visualizations of data about our personal finances, health, and social lives. Information visualization is becoming a medium of communication and a means of organizing, exploring, analyzing, and creatively deriving meaning from the deluge of information that we face in our everyday lives. This new means of communication and understanding calls for a new form of literacy, particularly because it communicates many vitally important personal, economic, political, and social issues.

Increasingly, the interests of computer science experts within this field overlap with our own interests. As infovis becomes more public-facing and participatory, infovis researchers are turning to audience analysis, genre, and rhetorical theory to better understand how to engage people's attention and facilitate insight.

Composition teachers and researchers have a unique perspective to bring to the study of information visualization. Because information visualizations rely on an array of rhetorical tactics, we can apply the strategies and insights of rhetorical analysis to gain a critical understanding of data displays. Moreover, our own understanding and teaching of reading, writing, and rhetoric can be invigorated by the introduction of infovis into our curriculum.

Editorial layers of infovis

In a paper published in the proceedings of IEEE's 2011 VisWeek Conference, Jessica Hullman & Nick Diakopolous identify four "editorial layers" of a visualization: data, visual representation, annotation, and interactivity. These are sites at which "editorial judgments, and thus rhetorical techniques, can enter into the construction of ... visualizations." Subtle or overt, intentional or unintentional rhetorical manipulation occurs at these layers, making them ripe for analysis.

By examining what's going on at these four layers, we can help students be more effective as readers and producers of information visualizations.

This site

Here I present a brief discussion and examples of the kinds of editorial and rhetorical decisions that happen at the layers of data, text, visual representation, and interactivity. The final section of the site offers some additional resources.