Exploring the politics of information practices: The case of visualisations and critical literacies.

21 December, 2015

Veronica Johansson, Ph.D. and Senior Lecturer. Swedish School of Library and Information Science (SSLIS), University of Borås, Sweden.

In December, 2012, I defended and published my dissertation A Time and Place for Everything? Social Visualisation Tools and Critical Literacies ( http://hdl.handle.net/2320/11462 ) (Johansson, 2012). My objects of analysis in that study, as well as in later research projects, are users’ interactions with information resources in the form of visualisations of data (and in particular social data, i.e. data that relate to people; their views, characteristics and actions – hence the choice of the term “social visualisation tools”). My recurring research questions merge a sociotechnical interest in the broad and material manifestations of what might be called “politics of information”, with a sociocultural emphasis on the meanings of information resources as created in situated user interactions. In this blog post, I would like to present my views on the relevance of visualisation tools as objects of study in an information practices/information literacies perspective; my own sociotechnically/socioculturally inspired approach to aspects of information practices in terms of critical literacies; and what venues of research that I find relevant to pursue as an extension of this.

In this age where data is perceived as the “new oil” of the information society, visualisations serve as the main means of “refining” – in the sense of processing and making use of – this raw material. But what are visualisations, really? A simple yet adequate description is that “visualisation” refers to both the process and product of making data “readable” for humans. Through visualisation, data – whether in big or small quantities – that otherwise would have been difficult or impossible to grasp, analyse and interpret in raw or semi-processed state can be represented in more meaningful and intellectually accessible ways. The process has been described in quite poetical terms as “giving form to that which has none” (Few, n.d.). And as a sign of the times, visualisations are no longer a concern for specialised professions, business and research, but a common feature of our everyday information worlds, in all sorts of contexts. The “form” given to data when representing them as visualisations can be of many sorts, as illustrated for example by the UNHCR Historical Refugee Data visualisations ( http://data.unhcr.org/dataviz/ ) (UNHCR, n.d.) or The Guardian’s visualisation comparing Australian states’ and territories’ approach to same-sex marriage rights (http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/datablog/ng-interactive/2015/oct/12/same-sex-marriage-rights-how-australian-states-and-territories-compare ) (The Guardian, 2015). Similarly, people can generate and visualize their own data for health or economy related “self-surveillance” purposes (c.f. Yau & Schneider, 2009), as with the application RunKeeper ( https://runkeeper.com/ ) (Runkeeper.com, n.d.) for monitoring distance, speed, heart rate, calory consumption etc when exercising, or the More Power (http://www.moreassociates.com/research/energy_literacy/ ) platform for visualising energy use in households of the future (More Associates, n.d.).

But not only are visualisations of data everywhere, they are also surrounded by an influential rhetoric that describes them as powerful, quick and intuitive providers of “true answers” – they “tell us how it is” and they “uncover the knowledge that is hidden in data”. I have described this rhetoric as cognitivist and positivist in kind, and it can be seen to fall back on at least three highly persistent and equally problematic ideas, that:

  • images are unmediated (or at least less so then e.g. text), and therefore close to, or the same as, “real” and “correct”;
  • the more technology and automation and the less human agency involved in producing information, the higher the objectivity and correctness of this information; and
  • data are equal to “facts”, in the sense of objective and true representations of the world, unlike e.g. human spoken or written interpretations (Johansson, 2012).

This rhetoric is problematic in more than one way. Firstly, it obscures the constructed nature of visualisations and that they are just as troubled by errors, bias, and subjectivity as any other type of information resource. Secondly, it downplays one of the most important strengths of these types of information resources, namely that they are powerful tools for exploring subjects and discovering new and unexpected questions to ask and investigate further by other information seeking means. Similarly, the rhetoric hides the visualisations ability to provide valuable common grounds for individuals, communities and organisations to discuss, question, reinterpret and advance the analysis and interpretation of various data sets and connected issues. A critical problem, then, given that visualisations are literally everywhere and surrounded by a simplifying and misleading rhetoric concerning their values and powers, is that there has been little corresponding research and discussions on what source criticism, critical literacy, and media and information literacy (MIL) means in relation to these specific information resources. What does it take, for instance, for a person to critically evaluate and use a visualisation such as Pitch Interactive’s Out of Sight, Out of Mind ( http://drones.pitchinteractive.com/ ) (Pitch Interactive, n.d.)?

In my take on the above described problem, I elaborate the concept of critical literacies as an extension and redefinition of prior critical literacy definitions (Johansson, 2012). The term critical literacies was thereby made to denote the situated enactments of meanings through which the users that I studied were seen to identify, question, and transform bias, restrictions and power related aspects of access, control and use with regard to data and visualisations. I describe the expressions of critical literacies that I found in terms of three main directionalities as reactive, proactive and adaptive. The reactive critical literacies are close to traditional notions of “critical literacy” in that they require an information user to “read at a distance” and question the form and content of an information resource by a number of previously learnt strategies. The proactive critical literacies describe ways in which the users demonstrated empowered abilities to reinterpret and take control of data and visualisations in order to counter others’ arguments or produce new or alternative information and arguments to further their own interests. And finally, the adaptive critical literacies describe how critical awareness of errors, bias and restrictions also arose as a direct result of the users’ interaction with the visualisation tools. These types of critical literacies were further found to be intimately and positively connected to the extent of interaction possibilities available in each visualisation.

Against this background, I would say that an important task for research in the visualisation area in general, and for the information practices / information literacies strands of library and information science in particular, is to continue to contribute to more practice situated studies of users’ interactions with, and shapings of, visualisation tools as information resources. Another challenge concerns supplanting the dominant simplified and misleading rhetoric of visualisations with more nuanced alternatives that emphasise their potentials to identify and encourage the asking of new questions and allowing for multiple alternative analyses of the same data. The understanding of critical literacies in relation to images, data, visualisations and more or less automated information resources also needs much work and elaboration and there needs to be joint efforts by many actors to further both theories and practices of critical literacies in these areas, not least between researchers, librarians and teachers. In my own research, I hope to be able to contribute to such developments and to pursue the questions that I find particularly relevant concerning the mutual enactments of visualisation tools and critical literacies in a rich variety of settings and information practices. Apart from the professional settings that I studied in my dissertation (a municipal agency analysing traffic accidents in a city and political organisations analysing data on the development of the world’s countries), I have also been involved in a minor project aiming to introduce and evaluate the use of visualisations as pedagogic and learning resources in a Swedish high school (Omvärld.se, n.d.) ( http://www.omvarld.se/fas2/  ). Regardless of perspective, though, visualisations undoubtedly make for dynamic and interesting research objects and I think that information practices / information literacies research perspectives have particularly valuable contributions to make at this point in time.


Veronica Johansson, Ph.D. and senior lecturer

The Swedish School of Library and Information Science (SSLIS), University of Borås

Website: http://www.hb.se/en/Research/Researchers/Johansson-Veronica/




Few, Stephen (n.d.). Data Visualization for Human Perception. In Soegaard, M. & Damm, R. F. (Eds.) The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction. 2nd ed. Copenhagen: The Interaction Design Foundation. https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/book/the-encyclopedia-of-human-computer-interaction-2nd-ed/data-visualization-for-human-perception#chapter_start [2015-12-17]

The Guardian / Data Blog (2015). Same-Sex Marriage Rights: How Australian States and Territories Compare. (Visualisation, 2015-10-12). http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/datablog/ng-interactive/2015/oct/12/same-sex-marriage-rights-how-australian-states-and-territories-compare [2015-12-17]

Johansson, Veronica (2012). A Time and Place for Everything? Social Visualisation Tools and Critical Literacies (Skrifter från Valfrid: 52, Diss.). Borås: University of Borås. http://hdl.handle.net/2320/11462

More Associates (n.d.). Energy Literacy: How Can Design Massively Reduce the Demand for Energy in Buildings? (Website). http://www.moreassociates.com/research/energy_literacy/ [2015-12-18]

Omvärld.se – Interaktiv visualisering i skolan [The Surrounding World.se – Interactive Visualisation in School] (n.d.). (Website). http://www.omvarld.se/fas2/ [2015-12-18]

Pitch Interactive (n.d.). Out of Sight, Out of Mind. (Visualisation). http://drones.pitchinteractive.com/ [2015-12-18]

RunKeeper.com (n.d.). Runkeeper. (Website). https://runkeeper.com/ [2015-12-18]

UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] (n.d.). UNHCR Historical Refugee Data. (Visualisation). http://data.unhcr.org/dataviz/ [2015-12-18]

Yau, Nathan & Schneider, Jodi (2009). Self-Surveillance. Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 35:5, pp. 24-30. doi: 10.1002/bult.2009.1720350507


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