Going down the GIS rabbit hole. . . with data viz on the side.

I decided to go with MapStory over Google’s MapsEngine for teaching introductory GIS to my students. Maps Engine is stupid-easy to use, but lacks the MapStory’s change over time features. The disadvantage of MapStory is that I need to learn QGIS and possibly teach it to my students for them to get the most benefit from it. 

MapStory facilitates learning QGIS with strong links to lesson plans scattered about the web on using QGIS. Still, as I’m already on the hook to teach myself R and statistics with SwirlStats, I jump into yet another subject matter with some trepidation. 

On a non-digital note, I just got The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge by Manuel Lima out of Hennepin County Library. As I think about how to train my students in visualizing the past, it’s useful for me to look to those more expert than me in the visual world. I’ve only played with the book, but can already draw some preliminary conclusions, none of which I suspect are original but are nonetheless necessary to developing future lesson plans: 

  • Representing data in visual formats that explain or enhance our understanding of the past depends on the quality of the data. For example, most of the trees in this book are from Europe or the U.S., great but insufficient for a full understanding of how tree visualizations have been used in world history. The graphics of the trees are stunning with even medieval manuscripts in HD picture quality. Still, I’ll need to be clear to students that the seductive beauty of data visualizations shouldn’t be taken as enhanced accuracy. Pretty isn’t better, necessarily. 
  • Much of understanding historical data visualizations relies on an understanding of symbolism. Everyone can understand a family tree is not literally a tree. Yet, moving beyond that minor example to how the symbolism of data visualizations constrains and illustrates causal relationships will require some thought. Data, even prettily displayed in familiar metaphorical representations still requires a robust understanding of what we often associate with more literature-based concepts: metaphor, simile, and allegory.
  • Data visualization holds the promise of showing historical connections heretofore buried in spreadsheets or narrative notes. We can actually understand the past in a fundamentally different way now. How to convey the idea to students that what we know about the past may radically shift as we apply digital tools to history requires further thought. 

Safe home. 

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