Epistemologies of data visualisations

As we navigate the information-rich digital landscape, data visualizations help us to make sense of the complex world around us. They offer a seemingly objective, efficient, and authoritative way to present information. But are they as straightforward as they seem? In a recent open access publication in on_education, we think through our own attempts to create data visualizations in critical educational research.

As part of the RED project, we developed a tool called InfraReveal. It tracks and visualizes the digital infrastructure that powers educational technology. By analyzing the metadata attached to data packets—those tiny bits of data that zip across the internet—we can see which companies are involved and how these services are interconnected. In the article, Epistemologies of data visualisations: on producing certainties, geographies and digitalities in critical educational research, we critically examine our own development and use of InfraReveal in relation to three themes:

The Illusion of Certainty

Data visualizations like those in InfraReveal can give a sense of certainty. But this clarity can sometimes mask the messiness of the underlying data. We need to remember that visualizations are simplifications, and they can hide the complexities and uncertainties of the real world. In our work, we’ve chosen to reflect on these uncertainties, reminding users that what they see is a representation, not the full picture

Mapping Our World

Maps are a common feature in data visualizations, but they come with their own set of stories and biases. They can emphasize certain geographies and reinscribe power hierarchies, shaping our understanding of the world. With InfraReveal, we’ve had to balance the familiar with the critical, using traditional maps while trying to highlight global data inequalities.

The Challenge of Participation

Creating tools like InfraReveal is a collaborative effort. However, participation varies across different contexts. What works in one place may not in another, as local norms and infrastructures influence the use and understanding of these technologies. We’ve tried to navigate these differences, ensuring our visualizations resonate with diverse audiences.

In the end, data visualizations are not just about presenting information; they’re about engaging with the world. By understanding the stories they tell, we can foster a more nuanced and inclusive approach to interpreting the digital landscape of education. With InfraReveal, we’re striving to reveal the underlying data practices in education and question the inequalities they may perpetuate. It’s a balancing act of being critical and reflexive, using these tools to uncover new insights while acknowledging their limitations. Read more about our journey here