Information Graphics and Data Visualisations

It is interesting to consider how advanced we are at reading symbols.  Everyday we make use of them in all kinds of ways; symbols are integral to fast cognitive processing of information, through the use of colour, size and orientation.  More importantly, symbolic representations are fundamental to information graphics.

 To stress the value of information graphics, let’s consider road signs.  Imagine how difficult it would be to drive, if all road signs were black and white written instructions.  Road signs incorporate shape, colour and size in order to convey different messages, and as road users, we become familiar with them to the point that our cognition of them is instantaneous.

 The signs and symbols, which feature on the road, are largely universal (i.e. red means danger), and thus are a feature of graphical representations of information in all types of fields.  The success of visualising information seems to be in the way size, colour, shape and orientation are socially accepted to represent and communicate various things.  When thinking about data visualisations however, not only can a graphical representation speed up cognitive reception of data, but it can also enable pattern recognition, that is the ability for us to see things that we couldn’t see before.

 A visualisation that does this well is The Scale of the Universe’ produced by Cary and Michael Haung (2012)This interactive visualisation really does reflect the benefit of visualisations over raw data.  It is impossible for us to fathom the scale of comparable objects in the universe; however this visualisation affords the user, the ability to zoom through a virtual universe, from the Hubble space field, right through to the size of a Planck length.  Effectively this enables an understanding of size through comparison, something numbers on such a scale cannot do justice.

 Whilst graphics do afford an ability to grasp information in different ways to raw data, they are often abstract representations.  Plato’s dialogue on art and illusion deals with the idea that images are not real but rather an illusion.   Images are illusory because they attempt to depict reality, yet in reality they are only pictures.   Plato alludes to the fact that art is viewed by the soul.  Therefore it could be said that our interpretation of aesthetics is biased because we are being subject to the image not only playing on our conscious senses attempting to analyse meaning and data, but also on our deeper subconscious.  My argument is that images are not black and white.  Just like artwork in a gallery, different people will interpret what they see differently.  The aesthetic component of data visualisations therefore can potentially lead to individuals making sense of information in different ways, identifying different relationships, processes and correlations in data.

 This idea is integral to understanding the comprehension of visualisations.  To explain, consider the various ‘tools’ implemented in Visualisations in order to represent data graphically.  For example, Timo Arnell considers the thickness of a line to represent the strength of relationships between entities.  A dotted line, he explains, can be applied to 2D drawings to give a 3D transparent appearance, showing the viewer what exists out of sight.   The line is simply what it is; a line, however our interpretation of the line is dependent on our understanding of its symbolic representation. 


Arnell, Timo (2006) ‘the dashed line in use’, <>

Haung, C & M (2012) ‘Scale of the Universe; An Interactive Scale of the Universe Tool’

Plato (n.d.) on ‘art and illusion’ in ‘a snippet of a dialogue: Theodorus – Theaetetus – Socrates – an Eleatic stranger’ from Sophist, <>


Does Google Make Information Accessible?

The Word for this week is ‘piracy’.  However this post does not reflect upon this term.

The question of whether or not Google makes information accessible is not entirely straight forward.  Whilst the search engine does provide the platform for the vast majority of internet users worldwide to search the web there is a level of suspicion surrounding the way Google personalises search results to align with users.  Whilst Google provides organised information for our convenience, are they overstepping the mark by prioritising the information they think we want to see, or perhaps the information they want us to see.

 Eli Pariser, the author of The Filter Bubble thinks that they are overstepping the mark, and has expressed concern for the effect that Google is having on individuals performing as informed citizens.  He speaks of how Google search results are influenced by user, location, computer and browser.   He suggests that the personalization of Google is resulting in people absorbing information they want to see rather than what they need to see.   Effectively Google is shortening our information horizons limiting our potential to experience the world (Dover, 2010). 

 Media has been integral to the formation of society.  For individuals to function as citizens, they must have access to information, more importantly, the same or similar information in order for public discourse to form.  Historically newspapers were an important example of this occurrence.  With the personalised Google however, the opportunity for this to occur is potentially diminished considering that results are varied.  Not everyone is on the same page.

  Google always responds to criticism by claiming that its algorithms which align search results to user relevance are used to improve the user’s experience.  Greg Linden (2011) supports the personalised Google arguing that recommendations are vital for us to learn new things.  He suggests that individuals can’t search for things they don’t know exist.  Personally I can relate to this claim, I do however see the issue when it comes to information such as news and current affairs which create informed citizens.  If we are all being exposed to different pieces of information, how can we engage equally on matters within society?

  I don’t believe that Google is actively attempting to restrict particular pieces of information from users.  I do think that they are feeding consumers more customised results of information to make them more content with what they are consuming and thus more content with Google.   Others suggest that our information is being used to create personalised products targeted at us (Silverstein, 2011).   But should Google have the right to withhold our information to customise our navigation of the web?  At the end of the day the internet is a public place and Google is a corporation, surely they’re not going to offer people a service for nothing, there has to be some catch for their free service, and our information is it.


Dover, Danny (2010), ‘Google’s Unspoken Failures Are Limiting Your Potential’ Search Engine trends,    

 Linden, Greg (2011), ‘Eli Pariser is Wrong’ Geeking With Greg,

 Pariser, Eli (2011), ‘Beware Online Filter Bubbles’, TED

 Silverstein, Barry, (2011), ‘The Good and the bad of Information Filtering’


This week’s readings were certainly an eye-opener.  It’s concerning to note that the abundance of information that exists on the web is potentially creating more problems than benefits as we face the prospect of having information that is valueless given that so much of it exists.  With so much information, what becomes of value is attention.  Information is hungry for attention.

 Michael Goldhaber has described attention as the currency of the new economy (1997).  Audiences of content are obviously outnumbered by the seemingly infinite archives of information on the internet; therefore their attention is of value because it is relatively scarce. 

 The million dollar question however, is what creates attention and how can it be sustained?  I guess if I had a definitive answer I wouldn’t be writing this blog, but Michael Erard (2009) suggests that two key strategies are making things free, and making them brief.  This may seem like a good idea, but it’s not sustainable.  Everyone can publish short and for free, and it will probably just lead to an abundance of more information, only this time more redundant and useless than the information that already exists on the net.

 The internet has increased our consumption of content, yet at the same time has diminished our attention to detail.  Potentially concerning are the claims of Emily Yoffe (2009) that suggest we as consumers are becoming addicted to technology, to the instant gratifications that are attainable through media use.  The result is shortened attention spans.  So as there is more information, our attention spans are reduced thus causing the value placed on attention to rise.

 This brings me to the concept of ‘infotension’, a term coined by Howard Rheingold (2009).  He describes infotension as a combination of brain powered attention skills with computer powered information filtering systems.  I guess infotension is a hybrid human computer information filter.  What Rheingold proposes is that the use of tools such as search engines, RSS feeds, social bookmarkers and feed aggregators can enable users to effectively filter information in order to find exactly what they are looking for.  Essentially what these tools enable for is a constant update of information, which essentially restructures the relationship between the user and the information by effectively making the relevant information find the user who wants it.

 Rheingold’s ‘infotension’ could be the crucial element in saving our brains from the tsunamis of information that we are bombarded with everyday.  Educating individuals to navigate through the information on the net, and use the tools available to filter the valuable from the useless could prove important for two reasons.  Firstly I think that it will enable consumers to exercise their attention and secondly it may promote quality as published content will need to only consume the attention of those who are interested in it most.