Data Visualization Article Response: How Alternative Facts Rewrite History
By: Maya Abrams
This week's reading for my 'Introduction to Illustration & Data Visualizations' class is an article by Alan Smith titled "How alternative facts rewrite history," specializing in the importance of a graphic's scaling used to encode significant periods for the reader's understanding. According to Smith the definition of scale is 'the mechanism by which numbers of any size are converted into readable proportions on the page or screen,' meaning the barriers that will emphasize how and where numerically/historically the graphic will be measured. One crucial notion Smith highlights in terms of using scale correctly is making sure that all graphics use the same units, concerning what timespan will be measured to keep from misleading information. Alan's article shows an emphasis on a particular style of scale called the log scale, which is used to balance higher and lower values of the same data on an axis.
The log scale is typically implemented to aid readers from interpreting the data correctly, so it helps provide a visual aid to the article's context. One of the examples Smith includes in his article illustrates two graphs about the UK claimant count, but they tell two completely different narratives. The graph on the left illustrates a rapid decline in the claimant count, but the time calculated measures in four years, while the graph on the right measures in one year. Although data may report an increase in the claimant in 2016, the study seems to study more than just one year's worth of data. Since the time between the two graphs cease to stay consistent, the numeric units are also inconsistent. If a reader cannot track a repetitive foundation to study the data, what will they receive from the graph's presence besides confusion? Infographics have to ensure that the data lines up in numeric value and allocated time to show an accurate growth or decrease in whichever value is measured.
After explaining the significance of the log scale process, he shows a graph depicting the Down Jones Industrial Average that uses a numeric value of thousands. The problem with the chosen unit is the fact that with the stock market crash of 1929 the average numbers were lowered to triple digits, but the graphic cannot include that dramatic change with the current unit scale. The log scale, which measures in multiples of ten, has the ability to place significantly separated averages into one space with the stretched unit range. After applying the log scale to the Dow Jones data, the graph now has the ability to tell a story. After switching the scale, Smith finally chooses to switch the orientation to vertical rather than horizontal in order to fill in other events with historical significance. Rather than simply placing a linear graphic in the middle of the article, the renovated graphic provides relevance to the information that is being presented to the reader. It helps give a sense of meaning and understanding, rather than making the article cloudy or meaningless after the reader has finished the creator's research summary.
Reflecting on this article's impact on my personal efforts with better understanding infographics in everyday life I want to go back to the Temple of Time infographic created by Emma Willard back in 1846. The infographic illustrates basically a revered timeline of the world's history without using a single notion of numeric value or scientific data. The infographic uses space and the Greek-inspired temple's columns to separate each century, placing the earliest events in history furthest to the back and the most recent events the most clearly legible in the infographic. Although I do not know Willard's clear purpose for creating this infographic, the first meaning I understood from the temple filled with nearly two millennia worth of memories, revolution, and change it reminded me that everything ultimately affects everything. As history progresses the past does not erase itself, but helps steer the future in the right or sometimes wrong direction. Although the reader cannot decipher every single notation of Willard's infographic, they can understand the visually faded history was at some point at the forefront. Seeing that she created this in the 19th century, her own work has started to fade with the rest of the time, but it doesn't lessen her efforts and artistic innovation. While scientific data can sometimes appear to completely differ from historical importance, they realistically work in tandem to support one another as living proof. The reason why researchers include graphs to support their claims is the same reason scientists use previous experiments to steer their new discoveries in the right direction. History is not conveyed in simply one media or just written. History is notated, illustrated, annotated, placed in a spreadsheet, and beautifully animated along a computer screen.