Ugly Untruths: Data, Visualisation and Human Development

I am presenting the paper ‘Ugly Untruths: Data, Visualisation and Human Development’ with Doug Specht today at the Oxford Big Data and Development Symposium at the Said Business School in Oxford. 

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This paper explores the risks of uncritical approaches to big data on issues of development with a focus on how it is harnessed in images. Accurate information is a basis for effective policy making, yet big data is far too often understood as empirically incontestable. This apparently evidence-based analysis can obscure more than it reveals. We examine how big data is being mobilized in data visualization on issues of human development in ways that serve ideological agendas. We will begin by examining how images work with a re-contextualization of impressionist art. A critic of Cézanne declared that his artwork was nothing more than an ugly untruth, a deliberate distortion of nature. Using this notion as a starting point, this paper questions how data visualisation illustrates trends and presents truth claims, through the privileging certain perspectives and importantly the rejection of others. We will then examine Max Roser’s Our World in Data (OurWorldinData.org) as an example of data visualization on issues of human development. Through these examples we will develop the concepts of digital positivism, datawash and darkdata as critical tools for approaching the communication of big data. Data visualization and artwork both reflect perceptions of the world, power relations, special interests and ideologies. The impressionists painted the unseen and unknown through painting voids. This paper posits that we could avoid the obfuscations of big data by understanding that its voids are political, but also that these voids might help us more clearly see power and ideology in data.

Dr. Joanna Boehnert is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media (CREAM) at the University of Westminster.

Doug Specht is a Research Associate and Visiting Lecturer at the Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI) at the University of Westminster.

This presentation covers work I have written about for here and here.

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