Visualizing Information

Of late my graduate students have been wrestling with what constitutes “digital scholarship” in history. In our discussion we talked a good bit about how information that is not quantitative can be displayed online in ways that take advantage of the capabilities of digital media. Among the examples I showed them are several that have some real potential for the representation of research in the scholarship of teaching and learning or even for analysis of information gathered in such research.

The first comes from the Moodographer website. If you don’t know Moodographer, their site description explains:

Moodgrapher plots the mood levels reported by LiveJournal users in their posts during the last days, updated every 10 minutes. Two numbers are reported by Moodgrapher: the percentage of posts reporting a certain mood (the dashed, black line below), and the “rate of change” of a mood � the difference between the usual amount of posts with this mood and the amount in a given hour (this is the continuous red line below).

So, an example of a Moodographer graph with historical utility would be:


This graph shows the frequency of “worried” in the blogsphere on the days when Katrina roared ashore on the Gulf Coast. It’s possible to imagine using a tool like this to analyze the content of student postings to a class blog, where the researcher would use analytical concepts taught in class or some other such category rather than “worried.” Such an analysis, conducted over the entire semester, could indicate the degree to which such key ideas were being deployed by students in their writing as the semester progressed.

The second example comes from This is a Flash application that allows you to visualize the relationship between members of the boards of director of the largest companies in the United States. So, for instance, if you wanted to see how the boards of Northrup Grumman and General Dynamics (two defense contracting behemoths) were connected, the visual example would look like this:


You can see that three men link these two boards together. But what about their links to other corporate boards? That graphic looks like this:


Now the interlocking nature of corporate leadership becomes more apparent. It’s possible to imagine using a tool like this to represent individual students in a course (rather than fat cat board members) and to indicate their connection to certain key concepts in the course over time.

The final example has to do with the use of words in the English language. tracks the usage of words in the English language–written and spoken. Their About page says:

WordCount� is an artistic experiment in the way we use language. It presents the 86,800 most frequently used English words, ranked in order of commonness. Each word is scaled to reflect its frequency relative to the words that precede and follow it, giving a visual barometer of relevance. The larger the word, the more we use it. The smaller the word, the more uncommon it is.

WordCount data currently comes from the British National Corpus�, a 100 million word collection of samples of written and spoken language from a wide range of sources, designed to represent an accurate cross-section of current English usage.

So, my own test was to enter the word Stalin, a word that came up often in my East European history class this afternoon. The result looks like this:


Uncle Joe’s name turns out to be in 9,516th place in terms of usage. I found it somewhat interesting to note that just ahead of “Stalin” in terms of usage was “sexy”. Go figure. And, because inquiring minds want to know, I decided to see if this site has any sort of feature that tracks queries. And, of course, they do. Here is the result of their query tracking. No surprises here! If you are offended by four letter words, stop looking now and hit the back button on your browser.


All humor aside, I think you can see how an historian might use a system like this. Imagine feeding in the 30,000+ personal narratives collected in the September 11 Digital Archive and subjecting them to this kind of analysis. Or, for the purposes of SoTL research, to track student use of words in their papers over the course of a semester.

Representing the results of SoTL research in such a visual way could lead to some very interesting new insights into what was happening in one’s classes.

One thought on “Visualizing Information

  1. Vicky

    As a member of the UK contingent I suspect that our apparent focus on research and outcomes in SoTL (with less obvious pratical imlications and less apparent concern about our colleagues buying into SoTL) was more to do with the folk who were able to attend the conference than the actuality. ie that those with access to resources to attend from the UK were most likely to be involved in research on SoTL. So the view is skewed in this case.

    There is also a reality that our dual funding model which separates teaching and research means that folk doing department based SoTL tend to feed into the units that the researchers of SoTL are employed by.

    At Glasgow we are trying to encourage more integration but discipline boundaries tend to make this much more problematic.
    As to World Civilisation courses, this is quite different across the Atlantic. We have not yet grasped just how colonial our history curricula are, especially those of us who teach in ‘ancient’ universities.

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