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Visualization as a Field Is Still Invisible

A new series by the New York Times is equally exciting and painful: it presents visualizations for discussion in class, but the outside help they are getting is coming from statistics rather than visualization. It’s another reminder of just how far we still have to go to even be noticed as a research field.

The new series is called What’s Going On in This Graph? and is part of the Times’ Learning Network. They publish a chart once a month with much of its context removed (but enough to figure it out), and ask students to interpret what they are seeing. This is done not in collaboration with the visualization community, but with the American Statistical Association (ASA).

I wanted to learn more about this series, so I contacted Michael Gonchar and Katherine Schulten, who run it on the Times side. Michael Gonchar kindly agreed to talk to me about it. He is a former English and social studies teacher, so he understands the people they make this content for.

What’s Going On in This Picture?

The Learning Network provides lesson plans and teaching materials based on the vast amount of stuff the NY Times produces. They have been running a feature called What’s Going On in This Picture? since 2012. Every Monday, they post an photograph from the Times without context or caption, and ask students to figure out what is going on. The goal is to get the students to look closely, practice visual thinking skills, and look for evidence to support their conclusions.

They moderate the discussion live on Monday, providing hints and pushing the students to think further. The goal is to create a safe space for students (mostly middle and high school, since they’re supposed to be 13 years old or older) to post their thoughts and observations without being made fun of or taunted.

Kids sometimes rush to make an interpretation, so in trying to slow them down to first note their observations and then state their interpretation, they get them to look more carefully and think more thoroughly about what they are seeing. They have even noticed that when they follow particular students’ comments over time, that their comments get more sophisticated.

Gonchar was particularly excited about the fact that this forum also facilitated Interaction between students in different schools. They often have no other communication, even if they’re essentially across the street from each other.

On Friday of each week, they reveal the source of the image with a link to the original article and a short summary that describes the image in particular.

…in This Graph?

The new series, What’s Going On in This Graph, was started after they worked with ASA on writing a lesson plan combining ASA materials with charts from the New York Times and The Upshot. They also ran a contest around last year’s election.

Gonchar says that the series is basically an extension of what teachers are already doing: clip charts and graphs from the newspaper (preferably the NY Times) to use in class. Doing this electronically is obviously much easier, except it’s hard to find the charts on the NY Times website – a common problem not just for teachers.

Just like with What’s Going On in This Picture, they post the chart early in the week (on Tuesday), moderate the discussion live for a day, and then reveal the original story on Friday. In this series, they also add what they call statistical nuggets, which are additional bits to discuss in class to deepen the students’ understanding or teach them basic statistics concepts (in the first one, they talk about units being used in different ways, what a statistical variable is, etc.).

It’s interesting to think about how much and what elements of a chart you can remove to make it harder to figure out, but not a guessing game. The first installment is a great example of this. Think about what you have removed or left in! It’s a surprisingly hard and interesting question.

I love the questions Gonchar said they wanted students to answer: What do you notice? What do you wonder? What do you think is going on? This appeals to kids’ natural curiosity and makes them think harder about wha they are seeing.

What Visualization Needs to Do

What’s Going On in This Chart is a great idea, and it’s painful that the visualization community isn’t involved. I asked Gonchar if he was aware of the VIS conference or the research community in general, and he said no. This is unfortunately not surprising. Visualization as a field and a community is largely invisible.

It’s not even that there is no relevant research that would let us connect with middle and high schools. There isn’t much, but there is some – in particular on visualization literacy, and there was a paper at CHI on teaching visualization in schools.

What we’re missing, however, is an organization that goes beyond publishing papers. To have a profile outside of our little world, we need to make a much stronger effort to go out and provide useful materials and services to people. We need to show the world that visualization is its own thing, not just a little thing you do as part of statistics.

It’s late 2017, and we’re still lacking a real online presence. Even looking at visualization blogs, the situation is dire. Anything beyond that is nonexistent. Where would somebody go who's looking to teach visualization to middle or high schoolers? Where would you find the materials beyond books (that are way above the level needed for this)? Lesson plans, activities, worked examples, and not just a collection that’s built and never updated, but that’s kept alive and added to on a regular basis.

ASA has been around for a while longer (founded in 1839) than the visualization community, and they’re much larger (18,000 members according to Wikipedia – but that number appears to be from 2009). But it’s not just a matter of size. It’s a matter of organizing around a common goal and making things happen. There is a shocking lack of social and organizational skills in our community, and we’re the poorer for it.

Visualization as an academic community has made some big strides over the last decade, but as a social community with any sort of societal impact, it is nowhere to be seen.

Next week’s VIS conference is the place the entire field gathers. Let’s make it the starting point of a era of visualization. An era of reaching out and making visualization visible and relevant in the world.

Posted by Robert Kosara on September 25, 2017.