HASTAC: “Visualization Across Disciplines”

On April 15th, 2013, HASTAC—“Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory”—hosted a forum called Visualization Across Disciplines. As part of the HASTAC scholars program, the forum aims to bring together scholars from various disciplines within the humanities, as a presentation for and discussion of newly developed visualization tools and projects. The forum structures itself around four basic categories: studies, tools, theory, and pedagogy, and poses questions about visualization, including our reasons for its use, its potential limitations, and how visualization may change the way we “read,” among others.

Visualization Across Disciplines showcases a number of tools and projects in order to spark discussion. “Many Eyes,” by IBM Research, acts as a collection of various visualization across many topics and disciplines (including this recent Wordcloud on the titles of TED Talks), as well as a forum for a discussion and exchange of data sets. The next tool, Gephi, calls itself “an interactive visualization and exploration platform for all kinds of networks and complex systems, dynamic and hierarchical graphs.” TAPoR “is a gateway to the tools used in sophisticated text analysis and retrieval.” Also of interest are the projects Mapping the Republic of Letters, a collaborative visualization of “over 55,000 letters and documents exchanged between 6,400 correspondents from the Electronic Enlightenment,” and Hypercities, “a collaborative research and educational platform for traveling back in time to explore the historical layers of city spaces in an interactive, hypermedia environment.”

The forum also cites a few other exemplary visualization projects, including Manga Style Space, Writing Without Words, Chinese Canadian Immigration Pipeline, Making Visible the Invisible, and Collaborative Visualization. While these projects all concern themselves with wildly different topics and issues, ranging from the mapping of writing styles to a re-presentation of manga pages to Chinese immigration patterns, they, like Stephen Ramsay in Reading Machines, are all interested in tackling the same problem: how to sort, organize, display, and interpret an excess of information. What these projects have in common is their chosen method for solving this potential problem: visualization.

While these projects are relatively recent and ongoing, some have existed for several years now. What makes the Visualization Across Disciplines forum current, however, is that it consolidates all of these tools and projects in the same place, using them to spark dialogue between scholars about the questions surrounding the development and direction of visualization in the humanities: “Why do we use it? How do we use it? And to what end?”

The comments may pose more questions than provide concrete answers, but for the purposes of introducing these questions and extending the discussion, Visualization Across Disciplines has met its goals. While Dana Solomon’s (PhD student at UC Santa Barbara) relation of visualization to textual analysis and a “qualitative shift” displays a focus on statistics, computer science, and graphic design, Brian Gutierrez (Graduate Student, University of Washington) is interested in relating visualization to the “pre-cinema visual experience of the phantasmagoria and the advent of the modern museum and gallery culture.”

Elijah Meeks expresses his concern: “My greatest concern with data visualization is that it is still highly invested in a particular production model that expects an expert audience creating summary information for a group of non-experts with very limited time.” Meeks’ concern approaches what then became a central question, which Tara Zepel (Graduate Student, University of California) identifies as “data literacy”: the reality that visualization is not “innate” but “learned.”

The conversation continues, covering topics such as creating a more narrow definition of visualization and how to interpret results. Most significantly, the forum acts as a way for scholars to share their own projects, tools, resources, and tutorials they found helpful. The last comment to date appears on April 27th. Mirroring the makeup of the HASTAC Scholars program, participation in Visualization Across Disciplines has been populated largely by graduate students already working on visualization projects of their own, and thus deeply invested in the issues at stake.

Visualization offers one major avenue of research as we try to address the issue: “How to Read a Million Books.” HASTAC’s forum, Visualization Across Disciplines is merely one of the most recent discussions of visualization tools, projects, and issues, as we continue our exploration and discussion of research in the Digital Humanities.

-Daniel Kason

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