Feminist Data Visualization

I just had the opportunity to attend a talk by Lauren Klein of Georgia Tech on Feminist Data Visualization: Rethinking the Archive, Reshaping the Field.

Her work, she argued, is feminist not because it includes the works of female data scientists – though it does – but because it seeks to examine the cultural and critical dimensions of data visualization.

Data visualization has the ability to call attention to the scholarly process, and a feminist perspective on data visualization highlights the presence or absence of certain modes of scholarly thought.

Klein began her lecture by exploring the work of Elizabeth Peabody. Quietly at the center of America’s Transcendental movement, Peabody was the business manager of The Dial, the main publication of the Transcendentalists, and is credited with starting the nation’s first kindergarten. She was friends with Emerson and Thoreau.┬áNathaniel Hawthorne and Horace Mann were her brother in laws.

An educator herself, Peabody’s work probed the question: who is authorized to produce knowledge?

Through the creation of elaborate mural charts, Peabody captured complex tables of historical events as aesthetic visualizations intended to provide historic “outlines to the eye.”

Her charts were challenging to create and to decipher – but that was an intentional pedagogical technique. Peabody believe that through the act of interpreting her work, a viewer would create their own historical narrative – they would have a role in generating knowledge.

Her large mural charts, intended to be physically be spread out on the floor, each took 15 hours of labor to create. Klein commented that this work is reminiscent of quilting – “a system of knowledge making that was considered women’s work and so has been excised from history.”

Klein compared Peabody’s work to that of William Playfair. Widely considered “the father of data visualization,” Playfair is credited with wth creation of the bar chart and the pie chart. His works are recreated by aspiring data artists and new data tools use his work to demonstrate what they can do.

Playfair’s work is beautiful and easy to read.

But, Klein asked, are we losing something by unquestioningly accepting that approach as the standard?

Klein pointed to the work of one other data visualizer – Emma Willard – who created a beautiful graphic, Temple of Time┬áin 1846.

Her work is explicitly framed from the viewers perspective. The viewer stands at the fore as the history of time recedes into the past.

Willard’s work makes the implicit argument that data visualization is inherently a subjective process. While we take our bar charts and graphs to be unquestionable factual – Willard argues that data is inherently subjective.

In that way, we are indeed losing something by neglecting this alternative forms of data visualization and by not questioning the perspectives we take in interpreting data.


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