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What Good Data Visualisation Can Do for Democracy

What Good Data Visualisation Can Do for Democracy

A chart showing India’s COVID-19 case load trajectory until December 1, 2020. Image: Devesh Kumar/The Wire (click here to view interactive version)

We come across graphs, infographics and colourful maps in the media almost every day. These are data visualisation techniques used often to comprehend useful patterns in large amounts of data generated by various endeavours.

Across numerous domains, from environment to politics, data visualisations are often the go-to methods to understand large scale phenomena. Both private organisations and public endeavours – including governments – use data visualisations to help develop policies and with decision-making.

In India, however, political parties haven’t taken to this form of communication. They should consider doing so for the technique’s power, especially during election campaigns.

Make a profound impact

A Chinese proverb goes, “I hear, and I forget; I see, and I remember.” In a January 2020 article, Carmine Gallo, an author and speaker, wrote, “Experiments in memory and communication find that information delivered in pictures and images is more likely to be remembered than [when delivered with] words alone.”

Scientists attribute this feature to the notion of pictorial superiority. They have also studied the relative advantages of visual and auditory information delivery, with studies showing that “humans may have difficulty retaining auditory compared to visual stimuli”. In fact, one group has reported that people’s ability to recall information improved when combined with audiovisual presentation instead of visual only.

Amy Poremba, who works with the US National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, noted in 2014, “As teachers, we want to assume students will remember everything we say. But if you really want something to be memorable you may need to include a visual or hands-on experience, in addition to auditory information”.

So to have a long-term impact on people, visualisation techniques ought to be part of any communicator’s repertoire.

Appeal to emotions

Charts, figures and other modes of visualisation evoke the element of pathos that makes the communication process more effective. Visuals tend to prompt more ardent reactions from people compared to a set of sentences. A 2018 study led by Piotr Winkielman, a professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego, found that images can be used to alter behavior even if they’re displayed for only 10 ms.

In an interview, Winkielman said emotive images of objects altered participants’ behaviour, “but people were not swayed by emotional words, which were somehow powerless – even though the words were rated to be as emotive as the pictures”.

Christine Boomsma, a researcher at the RIVM National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, Utrecht, found support in one of her studies for the idea that visual information is more impactful than verbal information vis-à-vis human behaviour.

Both Boomsma and Winkielman have stressed the need for further research to explore these connections. At the same time their work thus far seems to hold up the aphorism that “a picture is worth a thousand words”.

Efficient sharing and understanding

Graphs and charts are easier to share on social media platforms, and can draw a quicker response than textual messages. For example, we might have forgotten the precise details of COVID-19’s infection rates in different parts of India but it’s hard to forget the graphical and pictorial representations, which TV news channels flashed and which was repeatedly circulated on WhatsApp. This persistence stems from visual information being easier to understand and compare.

For any functional democracy, these features of data visualisation – to help us react to important information, understand it and recall it when necessary – are invaluable.

In fact, instead of simply reporting the stated facts in words, both officials and journalists can be more persuasive if they substantiate their arguments with visualisations.

This said, note here that we still need to be skeptical of the data itself that political candidates share. As Catherine D’Ignazio, an assistant professor of data visualisation and civic media at Emerson College, Boston, wrote in 2017, “Even when we rationally know that data visualisations do not represent ‘the whole world’, we forget that fact and accept charts as facts because they are generalised, scientific and seem to present an expert, neutral point of view.”

Indeed, because visualised data is more engaging, it also has greater potential to fool people – even if the data is accurate. Consider the following graph, of the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Georgia, US, published by the state government.

A misleading display of Georgia’s COVID-19 case load. Source: Georgia Department of Health (click to enlarge)

Notice the bizarre x-axis. Georgia published this chart at a time when its governor’s plan to ‘unlock’ the state had been drawing criticism perceived to be unfavourable to Donald Trump’s reelection campaign.

But while bad charts are not uncommon, the potential for good charts to contribute to positive change is far greater. The ethical and responsible use of data visualisation can change traditional politics for the better as well as help voters, politicians and ultimately democracy itself.

Bhargab Chattopadhyay and Chandreie Mukherjee are assistant professors at the Indian Institute of Management, Visakhapatnam.

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