The trouble with numbers

This week in Digital History, we are looking at (quite literally) data visualizations.  Our entire world seems to be changing with the Digital Age, and historical scholarship is no exception.  Historians are trying out new tools and new methods for retrieving and presenting their research.

For our exercise this week, we were encouraged to look at IBM’s Many Eyes for some existing examples of data visualization.  With this tool, you are also able to upload your own data set and create your own visualization.

I played around with Many Eyes for awhile and tried to upload data that I obtained from various sources on the web, like Stats Canada.  However, I quickly grew impatient (and memories of my struggle with TAPoR crept into my mind). With Many Eyes, you are not actually uploading your data – you are pasting into the browser, which makes it a bit tricky.  For the most part, the tool was able to quickly recognize the table of data, but when it came to the visualization part, it often wouldn’t work.  I decided to look for some nicely formatted data on my hard drive and, unfortunately, this is the best I could come up with.
This is a visualization based on a spreadsheet I created last year, when I was planning a trip to Vegas (these are the types of things you can do with your evenings when you aren’t in school).  Unfortunately, and ironically, the quality of the visualization is poor, so I will have to provide a bit of textual analysis to explain my data.  For the trip, I was flying to Vegas from Winnipeg and I was meeting my sister there, who would be flying from St. John’s.  Obviously, the most logical thing to do, was to create a spreadsheet to compare the costs for both of us, to figure out what flight / hotel package made the most sense.  The Y axis is the cost of the trip from Winnipeg and the X axis is the cost from Newfoundland.  The size of the circle corresponds to the hotel rating, as provided by Travelocity (the bigger the circle, the higher the rating).

Based on my visualization, it seems that the best option would have been to go with the travel package I highlighted in yellow, which was for the Trump Hotel.  However, the Trump Hotel is located off of the strip (a major downside when visiting Vegas), which was a bit of a deal-breaker for us.  We ended up staying at the MGM (the circle below and to the left of the text box) and were quite pleased with our choice.

What can we learn from my lesson in data visualization?

#1) No matter what the numbers say, there still needs to be some kind of contextual analysis.  If I had relied purely on the data, we would have stayed at the Trump and spent either time or money walking to and from the strip.

#2) It is very difficult to change your mind frame to use these types of methods for historical research.  I actually did try to think of a historical question I could examine with data visualization, but I ultimately returned to a familiar type of data set.  I am fairly comfortable with analyzing numbers in a mathematical/statistical way (thanks to my former boss who was all about metrics and constantly had me creating charts and graphs).  However, to think about using data for a historical analysis is something I am finding to be quite difficult. The readings this week seem to confirm that introducing these types of methods into historical scholarship will require a bit of a paradigm shift, for both the writer and the reader.

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3 thoughts on “The trouble with numbers

  1. I feel what you’re saying. I was not all that impressed with the visualization tools we looked at this week. They seemed a little too complicated and time consuming for the output they gave me.

  2. But paradigm shifts are scary, aren’t they? I was taught that numbers do not belong in history, and that numbers in history lie. I was discouraged from using statistics, because numbers could be used to justify or strengthen both sides of an argument. Digital history is definitely making me rethink my prejudices. Also, thanks for sharing your experiences with Many Eyes; I was unable to access the site last week, so it helps to see your results!

  3. Pingback: The Importance of Self-Reflection « Virtual Voice

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