Data visualisation: possibility or problem?

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Pinni A building, Paavo Koli auditorium, address: Kanslerinrinne 1



Professor Helenb Kennedy
Professor Helen Kennedy

Professor Helen Kennedy (University of Sheffield), gives a lecture.

In our increasingly data-driven societies, data are accorded growing importance, assumed to have the power to explain our social world and relied upon in decision-making that affects all our lives.

Increasingly, data matter. An important way that many people get access to data is through visualisations which, like the data on which they are based, are also widely circulated – ‘data are mobilised graphically’, say Gitelman and Jackson (2013:12). Academic research, world news, sports stats and our own digital footsteps are increasingly communicated in visualised-datafied forms.

This paper draws on a range of research projects which investigate data visualisation from a critical humanities and social science perspective, to reflect simultaneously on the possibilities that data visualisation opens up and the problems that it ushers forth. It considers two dominant ideas about datavis: the first is the belief in the power of visualisations to promote greater understanding of data and the second is the argument that visualisations do persuasive, ideological work, privileging certain viewpoints and serving as mechanisms of power and control. To these two perspectives I add two further issues emerging from my research: the politics of the pragmatic challenges involved producing a good data visualisation, and the emotional dimensions of engaging with data through visualisations. The paper concludes by bringing these divergent perspectives together in a framework for thinking  about (and thinking with) data visualisation.

Helen Kennedy is Professor of Digital Society at the University of Sheffield. Her research has traversed digital media landscapes, covering topics from web homepages to data visualisation, from race, class, gender inequality to learning disability and web accessibility, and from web design to social media data mining. She has recently been researching what happens when social media data mining becomes widespread – this research was funded by an AHRC Fellowship and published as a monograph entitled Post, Mine, Repeat: social media data mining becomes ordinary (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). Other recent research includes Seeing Data (, which explored how non-experts relate to data visualisations (funded by an AHRC Digital Transformation large grant). She is interested in critical approaches  to big data and data visualisations, how to make data more accessible to ordinary citizens, whether data matter to people, and how people live with data.

Additional information

University researcher Asko Lehmuskallio, 050 318 7013