Information in motion

Let me attempt to piece together three things that presented themselves to me in the last couple of days. In doing so, I will continue to beat the modern scholarly communication drum I’ve been beating, particularly in my own discipline, education.

First, yesterday, I saw that the Institution of Education Sciences (IES) put together a new report on “best practice” for communicating findings of research driven by research questions that call for descriptive statistics. A LOT of educational research fits into this bucket, including, but not limited to, studies using survey research designs and secondary data analyses. I did a fairly cursory review of the IES report and my first instincts are that it’s decent and somewhat useful, but limited, particularly when it gets around to data visualization. If colored heat maps are the top end of our creative thinking for visualizing data, we’re way behind the curve.

Then, today, The Upshot at the New York Times produced an “interactive” visualization called
Good Schools, Affordable Homes: Finding Suburban Sweet Spots.” Substantively, it’s all kinds of problematic. Jack Schneider, Assistant Professor of Education at Holy Cross, and a boffo education historian, went on a lovely rant about the “tool” that’s worth reading.

(It starts with that tweet, but click through to see the whole thread)

For the purposes of this post, though, I’m more interested in the technical and visual aspects of what the NYT accomplished. It’s not their best “interactive” data visualization they’ve ever done, but it’s eleventy bazillion times better than the black and white histograms we see in print journals in academia.

Finally, today, my awesome colleagues at the VCU Libraries hosted another event in their ongoing Digital Pragmata series.

Digital pragmata flourish at the nexus of research, teaching, and creativity. They can be textual databases, creative visualizations of information, multimedia explorations, collaboratively annotated maps, and a thousand other projects. How do they fit into a world built on books and scholarly journals? Will these new ways of communicating displace a world made on paper, or will they blend into new forms of scholarly expression that grow from the best of the past?

Today’s event was called “Information in Motion” and featured three absolutely amazing visual artists. All three talked about and showed examples of what happens when animation is used to tell a story, particularly educational stories. Donna De Smet is a medical illustrator who produces incredible animations that help explain heretofore mysterious medical concepts. Whitney Beer-Kerr works for a company called Pixeldust Studios where she works on short-form videos like this:

I mean… that’s a video they produced for a NOVA television series based on the book by best-selling author/physicist Brian Greene. In other words, they took ridiculously complex scientific ideas from a scholar and made a compelling two-minute video to help people like me understand them. And, that video is SOOO two years ago.

We now live in a world consumed by data and information, and we now have the technologies that afford seemingly unlimited possibilities for how we share those data and information. Institutions of higher learning are awash in incredibly important data collected by top researchers and scholars who truly have stories to tell from their studies. There are many, many problems with the way the vast majority of scholars communicate their findings in this day and age, so I’ll only focus on the issue of data visualization. Why aren’t more scholars working within higher education thinking about modern forms of data visualization and modern ways of telling stories with their data? I can think of at least four reasons:

  • They don’t know what they don’t know; these sorts of media just aren’t on their radar screens as even possibilities.
  • They aren’t considered “scholarship” within the bounds of tenure and promotion guidelines, so why bother.
  • They don’t have the capacity to do it themselves. I know I sure don’t.
  • Absent writing support for data visualization into a grant proposal, there’s no institutional support for this kind of work.

The last two are key. I sure don’t expect scholars to learn how to do programming or video production on top of the work they’re already doing. So, if institutions of higher education are serious about modern scholarly communication, if they want to help scholars #MakeItReal, they need to think about how to support that work. I can think of at least three ways this can happen:

  1. Create standalone support units. At VCU, we have an office called University Relations. Their focus is mostly on marketing and PR. We also have some burgeoning efforts around scholarly communications within VCU Libraries. But, they’re not at all staffed to help faculty with data visualization. So, wherever it is housed, we could have our own little internal visual arts firm. We could have VCU’s own Pixeldust Studios or Planet Nutshell that is mission-driven to work with faculty to help them tell stories with their data. This wouldn’t be cheap because we would be competing with the private sector for top talent which is clearly in high demand. But, this is true of other units within universities, including, for example, University Relations and Technology Services. And, there are, believe it or not, people with talent who would prefer to work at a public institution with an educational mission than a private firm.
  2. We could partner with or outsource to firms like Pixeldust Studios or Planet Nutshell. This would also be costly, and I always prefer to invest in human capital and to build internal capacity than to outsource things. But, this would be the quickest way to get started in supporting scholars/researchers.
  3. At VCU, we have a unique opportunity in that our School of the Arts is the top public school of the arts in the country. We have stellar programs in graphic design and kinetic imaging, for example, Those programs are staffed with amazing visual artists and their students are incredibly talented and eager for learning opportunities. There must be a way for social scientists and humanists, for example, to partner with faculty and students in the School of the Arts on data visualization projects. It feels to me like there’s a win-win possibility here, but it’s probably easier said than done.

I’m sure I’m not thinking of all of the possibilities. But, I am certain that colleges and universities MUST do better in the ways we support our top-notch scholars in communicating their research findings. Again, if we are to continue to lead the way in producing new information, and if we are committed to remaining relevant, we have to find ways to grow our data visualization capacity.

I don’t know if the old saw is true and that information wants to be free, but I now think information wants to be in motion. 🙂

March 30th, 2017 by