Data Visualization, Part 1: Getting Acquainted

What is data visualization? It can be as simple as a pie chart, or as complex as a professional infographic.  This year my professional goal is to incorporate more data visualization into my Digital Media class.


Why this goal, and why now? This summer I took my grandchildren to the library several times a week. On one of those visits, the six-year-old pulled an interesting book off the shelf. The title was Dear Data, and I was intrigued by the concept. Two graphic designer friends, one in London and another in New York, measured some aspect of their lives and illustrated it (by hand) on a simple postcard which they mailed to the friend. They measured how often they heard or said “thank you,” how many doors they walked through, and how many animals they encountered. The extraordinary results can be seen at their website.

As a Digital Media teacher, presenting information through visualization is a big part of my curriculum. Whether students are creating videos, constructing infographics, designing bumper stickers, or writing a blog post, the way they choose to express themselves will involve much more than words on a page (or a screen). Visuals matter. I decided to increase methods of data visualization in my class this year, and add types of visualizations they could do without the aid of technology.

Research & First Steps

I started by researching the authors of Dear Data. Giorgia Lupi has done a TED Talk, and her Instagram is full of ideas. I reached out to Giorgia via Twitter, and she responded encouragingly. I adapted one of her ideas, data wallpaper, for an activity our students completed at Freshman Orientation:  each student colored a symbol with their answers to simple, non-invasive get-to-know-you questions. The symbols were put together to create a poster that now hangs in the hallway outside our computer lab. By looking at the poster, students can see that they are not alone in their answers, and feel more like they belong.

Data Selfie Badges

Giorgia Lupi’s ideas of data selfies and data badges inspired another project. To introduce graphic design, I use Google Drawings with my students. After a day or two of practice, I gave them a quick 5-minute task to create their own data selfie following simple instructions using a Google Drawings template. Here are the results from one class.

8th period

The students turned their creations into me via Google Classroom, so I opened the assignment files automatically created for me on my Google Drive and downloaded all the images. Then I printed them all, 4 to a page; I learned through trial and error to uncheck the “fit to page” box so my images would print actual size, since I had designed the template to be certain dimensions. The size of the template matched the button maker template I planned to use. The teachers on my team helped me cut out each design and make it into a button using the button maker at our district’s resource center.

We asked students to wear their badges to our field trip last week. Since many students have not yet met each other, wearing the badges allowed them to learn one another’s names as well as several simple facts. For example, the badge at the top arrow describe someone who likes cats, is a night owl, is extroverted, and “sees the glass half full.” The arrow at the bottom is someone who likes dogs, is a morning person, identifies as introverted, and sees the glass half empty.

Getting Acquainted with Data Visualization

These two projects helped build community for my students during the first few weeks of high school. Building community is the most important thing for the beginning of a school year, but especially so for a magnet high school like mine that draws students from over 40 different middle schools. Utilizing graphic design for meaningful purposes means I can meet my curricular objectives while also fostering crucial social and emotional learning.