Visualize This

Eddie Izzard does a hilarious routine about JFK’s (in)famous Ich bin ein Berliner spiel by saying that the gaffe was actually totally fine because it’s really “70% how you look, 20% how you sound, and 10% what you say.”

With these words of wisdom in mind I decided to set out to teach students how to create data visualizations so that their research can at least look snazzy.

Mean Girls – a movie about image (among other things) that has become a key visual communication tool via GIFs and remixes on the internet. So meta!

Just kidding. I do, however, teach a data visualization class and it’s a subject area that I’ve gotten increasingly interested in. I think that visuals can be a great way to hook students into experimenting with technology and new ways to communicate ideas. So, everything information literacy instruction should be.

But data visualization is more than just a hook – teaching students how to create visualizations, how to differentiate between and evaluate visualization types, and how to understand representations of data, is a really vital skill, particularly for anyone who is participating in life on the internet (so, pretty much everyone if the folks at Pew are to be believed).

I don’t expect my kids to become the next Nate Silver, but having some visual literacy can be helpful in terms of both coursework and daily life. My students (generally teens) are on sites like Instagram and Tumblr all the time – there’s an entire language of GIFs (see #whatshouldwecallme and its derivatives) that has sprung up online and entire conversations can be held with emojis.

And aside from social interactions, Infographics are completely ubiquitous (Flowing Data exists for a reason). Data visuals and infographics are the go-to form for representing ideas and data sets, just as visuals like GIFs are rapidly becoming a go-to form for expressing emotions and ideas online. We live in a society laden with images and being able to both produce and critically assess visuals is a valuable skill to have.  Plus, data visualization is just fun to do in the classroom. I just enjoy having an excuse to take a coloring/drawing break from time to time.

For more on the ins and outs of data visualizations, infographics, and how they can be powerful tools, check out this Ted Talk by David MacCandless.

Lesson ideas with Data Visualization:

  • Give students a data set (you can get free sets from a variety of places, including government websites, Google’s Public Data Provider, or Overthinking It for pop culture data sets, like their awesome Star Trek Red Alert one.) and have them design a data visualization on their own using a tool like PowerPoint or even just good old-fashioned pen and paper. Then put them in pairs or groups and have them work together to merge their ideas.
  • Show students a bad data visualization (they are plentiful online) and have them apply best practices to fix it.
  • Have students represent one data set in different ways. Check out this Lifehacker post about choosing the best way to represent your data, for inspiration.
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