Are any visualisations off limits?

Data visualisations can cover just about any topic, from the sublime to the ridiculous; from the serious to the frivolous. I’ve seen no end of powerful visualisations on police brutality, casualties in war, mass shootings, the list goes on. Many more of these have surfaced, either new or updated, in the wake of the recent tragic shootings in Orlando. Let’s face it – it’s easy to visualise numbers related to gun incidents in the USA since the numbers are so starkly different to other countries in the world.

Major tragic incidents spark strong feelings such as anger, and data visualisers want to make their point in a timely manner in the same way that journalists, activists, politicians or anyone else would. So long as not done insensitively or in the form of an attack on persons, groups or minorities, there is always a place for this – we all know that a powerful visualisation can tell an important story. I could include such a visualisation here, but you don’t need me to add to those already freely available.

Sometimes, depending on the form of our visualisations, we need to remember that certain identifiable lines/numbers/colours/blobs refer to an identifiable individual human.

Over the last few days, I’ve been looking at a new dataset, focusing on members of British Parliament, past and present. I wanted to look at their demographics (sex, age, experience etc.) as well as their political leanings. I’d got as far as a fair amount of data sourcing and merging, some initial skeletons of charts, and some initial code to look at how we can rearrange our MPs differently over the benches to form other “majorities”. Every one of those MPs was shown, with a distinct circle and interactive link to the MP’s photo and social media links.

Something like this (image just shows an anonymous, static snippet of where I was going)


I’m working on the politics theme (following on from my previous blog entry where I looked at 2015 electorate voting but abandoned it) in order to consider entering the Iron Viz contest. But today’s tragic events have stopped me right in my tracks. The loss of Jo Cox today (who, regardless of your political leanings, was categorically a young, female and an opposition MP – exactly the kind of person I wanted to highlight in my visualisation) makes it, in my mind, inappropriate to analyse the UK’s MPs in such a way, especially with access to personal details such as a (publicly available) photo. I could blog extensively about the events and the tragic way a promising young life has been lost – certainly it has affected and saddened me today, but this blog isn’t the place for that.

It just doesn’t seem right to visualise about a dataset of 650 real human beings when one life has been lost like this. There’s no point removing one person and continuing, or waiting to re-visualise as soon as a by-election has been held, nor would it be right to leave her in, with or without explanation or tribute. Anything would be clumsy or inappropriate. It’s time to ignore the hours spent on it so far and respectfully leave it to one side.

You might think the answer to the question is “no” and that I’m being over-sensitive. But I think politics plan C will be either a hastily-compiled Euro Referendum visualisation, or a decision that discretion is the better part of valour. Maybe I’ll stick to football.



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