Module 7: Accessibility and Data Visualization

I think this week’s work has intimidated me more than any other week so far this semester. Accessibility itself is not a terrifying subject, but I think my absolute lack of experience and knowledge is most visible with this topic. Every other topic I had at least a passing familiarity with, but I know very little about accessibility, which means I have the farthest to grow to become better at it. The concept of accessibility is also not built in to any of our other training as historians. We are not typically trained to use different methodologies (except perhaps interdisciplinary historians) to reach different audiences or to write the same analysis in multiple ways rather than just in book form. The whole field feels rather standardized, which hardly leaves room for the flexibility required of accessibility.

Of course, this doesn’t mean the field can’t be accessible. As we saw in this weeks readings, there are hundreds of tiny ways that we as historians, and even just as members of our communities, can make information more accessible. In terms of research, simple and straightforward data visualizations such as the Economic Output in US Counties (https://public.tableau.com/en-us/gallery/economic-output-us-counties?tab=viz-of-the-day&type=viz-of-the-day) or Snowfall Extremes (https://public.tableau.com/en-us/gallery/snowfall-extremes-record-snowfalls-united-states?tab=viz-of-the-day&type=viz-of-the-day) can make information easy consumable. They are straightforward, not overwhelming with numbers or colors or different variables, which makes the information more accessible. As I toyed around with my QGIS map, where I measured how much a democratic vs republican representative won the vote in specific districts, I compared my color scheme to those in ColorBrewer. I had created a scale of red to blue, with purple in the middle being the transition, so that shading could show extremity. After reading “How to Design for Color Blindness” though, it seems that even though all three kinds of color blindness can seemingly distinguish between the 3 colors, it could become much more confusing or less effective to use such a color scheme. Instead, I decided that the ColorBrewer scheme of red-blue with white in the center would be more effective at portraying the same message with less chance of confusion.

I was also appreciative of the chance to utilize the WAVE tool to analyze my own website’s accessibility. Since I hardly know anything about web design, I got too caught up just trying to do the bare minimum to set up my site and didn’t consider accessibility. Something that I found interesting with my WAVE analysis was the presence of two menu links leading to the same page. I have my About page set as my Home, but there are still two tabs. I see now how that can be confusing if you are trying to click on either and the page doesn’t change. An area of real growth that I want to eventually learn about is understanding how page readers interpret documents and web pages. WAVE pointed out that some of my headers could potentially be an issue, even though they looked fine to me. But, perhaps a page reader would not be able to identify the header the right way.

Another point that I considered earlier in the week actually became the main theme of the last article I read about design thinking. Historians’ work is typically in monograph form or journal articles locked behind a paywall which we have discussed. While the paywall is a separate issue, I think that historians need to address the ways that we produce our analyses. While monograph are an effective way to express an analysis, they are currently largely inaccessible to non-historians (and can even be difficult for some historians). Instead, I think we should take a field from design thinking and begin to produce work with a broader audience of consumers in mind. I think that infographics, like the ones we saw on Tableau Public, could revolutionize the way that historians present their data.

Consider this: You sign up to present at a conference or are asked to give a presentation at your local library on your most recent research, a published monograph. Rather than talking for half an hour at a blank-faced audience or flipping through slides that people’s eyes glaze over, you provide handouts of an infographic which summarizes the main points of your research. This gives the audience a document to take with them and remember your research with and makes the information more consumable by providing a framework for your study, allowing the audience to tie the new information you provide to the data on the infographic. The infographic could deal with actual data, like many of the maps on Tableau Public; it could include maps, like the route of the Napoleonic invasion of Russia; it could even include word maps to show how subtopics are represented throughout your book. It doesn’t have to be specifically data as in statistical analysis. By providing such a handout or image, from an accessibility and pedagogical standpoint, the audience is much more likely to understand and retain the information provided.

3 Replies to “Module 7: Accessibility and Data Visualization”

  1. I really like your suggestion for a handout when you give a talk. You might even post it on a website, so attendees could consult before attending. As a former teacher, I am often disconcerted when I attend talks, which are disorganized and obviously don’t think about the needs of the audience. I am also glad to be learning to be sensitive to other needs that I wasn’t aware of . I think the secret of teaching is to work as a team between the teacher and student. I know I have always learned more from my students. I hope I can sit in on one of your lectures in the future.

    1. Your final comment is very sweet, thank you! I taught last year and experimented a bit but feel like I didn’t quite live up to the full potential of what I believe education should be. If you ever do get the chance to see me teach, I hope I don’t let you down!

  2. “Rather than talking for half an hour at a blank-faced audience or flipping through slides that people’s eyes glaze over, you provide handouts of an infographic that summarizes the main points of your research. This gives the audience a document to take with them and remember your research with and makes the information more consumable by providing a framework for your study”

    This is a very cool idea, Robert. It a little bit reminds me of when you are attending a conference, and there are some hard copies at the entrance thаt people might take. However, your suggestion is more specific and practical.
    When it comes to being intimidated, I have had a similar feeling almost every week, at the beginning of my DH study. However, little by little, gnawing the granite of science, approved that it’s all doable. So far… 🙂

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