Information Visualization and the Public Sphere

By: Jan Bajec
On: May 19, 2010
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About Jan Bajec
Visual thinking has always been the way I responded to my environment. It engaged my interest in arts and eventually led to my enrollment in Visual Arts and Graphic Design studies. From 2001-2002, I had an unique opportunity to be a part of a creative team at S Team Advertising in Belgrade associated with SAATCHI&SAATCHI. From 2002-2003, I worked as a Graphic Designer at Ovation – BBDO. In 2003, wanting to pursue my studies further and get away from advertising I enrolled in Design Art program at Concordia University in Montreal. After graduation I decided to stay in Montreal and work as a full-time freelance graphic designer and web design consultant. I favor an exploratory, investigative approach to design. As I have been in the situation to design for specific cultural environments, I have felt how much of a social construction design really is and how cultural values, tools and technologies specific to each social milieu are reflected in it. This kind of experience demanded broader research ‘routine’ and triggered my interest in many other subjects: sociology, psychology, pop-culture, television, politics, new media. As I was switching my area of interest from print to web design I became more involved in this new platform for visual communication…


Democratization of Data

Open Data is a practice (and philosophy) of making data freely available to everyone. Advocates of Open Data argue that restrictions, licenses, copyright, patents, or other mechanisms of control are against the communal good and that data should be made available without restrictions or fees. Recently, governments have been making some of their data publicly available (,, and soon after a couple of visualization tools intended to interpret those data appeared online.

In the early twentieth century Otto Neurath believed that a more egalitarian culture would arise out of an international program of visual education, because, pictorial information would dissolve cultural differences by its universality (Lupton, 1986). For Neurath the challange was to enable the ordinary citizen to get information freely about all subjects he/she was interested in. His project was to visualize data for easier access, so he worked on the development of new tools. He developed an iconic language of pictorial statistics (Isotype) that had as a basic aim to humanize and democratize the world of knowledge and of intellectual activity. “The visual method, fully developed, becomes the basis for a common cultural life and a common cultural relationship. Visualization, rightly understood, is not only a supplement to other educational methods, but also a foundation for the more successful education of tomorrow in relation to important cultural and social movements today” (Neurath, 1937).

    [Isotype – representing social relationships with visual representations]

Recently, Nino Zambrano and Engelhardt compared Hans Rossling’s Gapminder, as well as Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, to Otto Neurath’s idealism and visual education from the 1920s and 1930s. The authors state that Neurath and Rosling share a spirit that is independent of the technological means that they use, “which is their conviction that bringing statistical data to the masses could actually bring empowerment” (2008).

Gapminder Foundation, headed by Hans Rosling, Professor of International Health at Karolinska Institutet (Stockholm, Sweden), developed the software that converts international statistics into moving and interactive graphics. The aim is to promote a world view based on facts through increased use and understanding of freely accessible public statistics. Rosling argues that accurate, accessible and understandable statistical information constitute the fundament of governmental, corporate and civil society and also that digital technology and the Internet are transforming the ways in which societies make best use of these information systems. In order to make university students use and understand international statistics and adopt a fact based world view, Rosling and co. developed a simple approach:”Let’s apply the animation concepts from computer games on statistics!” (Rosling, 2007).

In December 2009 the first full release of Where Does My Money Go? prototype was launched online. Where Does My Money Go? is a free interactive online tool for showing UK public spending. The tool allows the public to explore data on UK public spending over the past 6 years using visual representations – maps, timelines and graphs. It is using dynamic data visualization and it offers the exploration of data from multiple perspectives (like “By means of the tool, anyone can make sense of information on public spending in ways which were not previously possible.” (Open Knowledge Foundation blog) Because transparency changes individual and institutional behavior, this new tool could have a big impact on the way public spending is “controlled” by UK citizens. “Our aim is to promote transparency and citizen engagement through the analysis and visualisation […]” (Where Does My Money Go? website). For example, people could find that healthcare spending in real terms has almost doubled in the last 10 years, or that The UK spends more on old age than on education.

    [Where Does My Money Go? application – one of the screens]

The project was made in collaboration between Open Knowledge Foundation (a non-profit organization based in UK, aiming to promote open knowledge – “that’s any kind of information that can be freely used, reused, and redistributed.” (Open Knowledge Foundation website) ) and Iconomical (Amsterdam based firm specializing in interactive visual solutions, founded by Liz Turner and David Boyce). They were aware of the importance of visual data analysis in critical investigation and how online information visualization tools can empower citizens and contribute to the realization of the public sphere. By “translating” governmental data and in turn making them widely available and understandable, the potential for public participation is extended.

Public Sphere

The same public debates from the early 1990s around the democratizing power of the Internet are re-emerging once again in the era of so-called Web 2.0. There is a lot of optimism concerning the potential of new web technologies to renew the institutions of democracy. The participatory and interactive features of the Internet have a lot in common with Habermas’s description of the idealised public sphere. The public sphere allows for individual communication to enter into the public discourse so that it can affect the political system (Habermas, 1989). It is an area in social life where people can get together and freely discuss and identify societal problems, and through that discussion influence political action and form public opinion. The public sphere mediates between the “private sphere” (the realm of commodity exchange and of social labour) and the “Sphere of Public Authority” (the Sate) (Habermas, 1989). According to Habermas, Public sphere crosses over both these realms, and it can be critical of the state and “is also distinct from the official economy; it is not an arena of market relations but rather one of discursive relations, a theatre for debating and deliberating rather than for buying and selling” (1989).

Although Habermas remains sceptical about the ability and potential of online communication it is widely argued that the Internet does the essential work of the public sphere. According to Kellner (2001), the pluralism of the Internet as mediated communication offers uniquely new opportunities for dissident, marginal, and critical points of view to circulate. In his view, “[d]emocracy involves democratic participation and debate as well as voting. In the Big Media Age, most people were kept out of democratic discussion and were rendered by broadcast technologies passive consumers of infotainment” (Kellner, 2001). In the “postmodern” society public communication is not based on consensus but is constantly negotiated, always changing and full of conflict. For Mark Poster (1997) the postmodern public sphere is a space characterised most of all by “expressions of post-structuralist subjectivity that questioned the autonomous rational subject at the heart of Habermas’s idealised public sphere.” Poster’s idea of a new public sphere is characterized by the new fluidity of subject position brought by online communication.

Yochai Benkler (2006) gives the central role in the creation of a new (“networked”) public sphere to the social, “nonmarket production” of content that are often said to characterise Web 2.0 – user generated content. In The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom(2006) Benkler argues that a new “network information economy” (which replaces the “industrial information economy”), characterised by nonmarket modes of participation and production, makes possible a public sphere that better serves the exercise of political freedom that is necessary in a liberal democracy. The most important feature of this “networked information economy,” for Benkler, is empowerment of individuals – “the much greater role within it for decentralised individual action” (Benkler, 2006). As Benkler puts it, the network information economy has, “fundamentally altered the capacity of individuals, acting alone or with others, to be active participants in the public sphere as opposed to its passive readers, listeners or viewers.” In his analysis of the “networked public sphere” Benkler claims that it is inherently more democratic than the “mass-mediated public sphere”; “[A]ny consideration of the democratising effects of the Internet must measure its effects as compared to the commercial, mass-media-based public sphere, not as compared to an idealized utopia that we embraced a decade ago of how the Internet might be” (Benkler, 2006).


Benkler, Yochai. (2006) “The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom.” Yale University Press, Newhaven.

Habermas, Jürgen (English Translation 1989). “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society.” The MIT Press, Cambridge MA. 6

Kellner, Douglas (2001). “Techno-politics, new technologies, and the new public sphere.” In “Illuminations,” January, 2001. Available online:

Lupton, Ellen. “Reading Isotype.” Design Issues, Vol. 3, No. 2. pp. 47-58. (1986)

Neurath, Otto. “Visual education: A new language.” In: Survey graphics: Magazine of social interpretation, XXVI (1), January, 1937.

Open Knowledge Foundation website:

Open Knowledge Foundation blog:

Poster, Mark (1997). “Cyberdemocracy: The Internet and the Public Sphere.” In David Holmes (ed.) “Virtual Politics.” Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Rosling, Hans. “Visual technology unveils the beauty of statistics and swaps policy from dissemination to access.” Statistical Journal of the IAOS 24, 103–104. IOS Press. (2007)

Where Does My Money Go? website:

Zambrano, Raul Niño, and Engelhardt, Yuri. “Diagrams for the Masses: Raising Public Awareness – From Neurath to Gapminder and Google Earth.” Springer, Berlin. (2008)

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