The Linkage between Medical Rhetoric and Data Visualization

I hope to have many more posts that fall into this dual thread;  but I am very excited to present my first finds which be making my first post which connects these two great passions of mine.  Both of the scholars I am about to feature are members of TED, and Swedish.

This first video was made for BBC hour by Hans Rosling, a professor of global health at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute who is harnessing the power of data visualization to change the nature of information itself (see also, post on Jeremy Tirrell’s work). His work falls more on the side of social studies of medicine, but I find his use of augmented reality and three dimensional space to explain diachronic patterns to be particularly exciting.

This second video explores direct application of data visualization to medical practice. Anders Ynnerman holds a chair in scientific visualization at Linköping University and is a founder and the present chair of the Center for Medical Image Science and Visualization’s scientific counsel (CMIV). He is actively involved in many international and economic endeavors to apply computer graphics to advanced scientific developments. As one studying the multiple ontologies of medicine, I find this new use of interactive, three dimensional, layered graphics particularly rich with potentiality.

Tirrell’s Historiographic Cartography of Rhet/Comp


Tirrell, Jeremy. “Mapping a Geographical History of Digital Technology in Rhetoric and Composition.” Diss. University of North Carolina at Wilmington, 2009. Dissertations and Abstracts International. ProQuest. Web. 20 Feb. 2011.

Purpose, Genre, and Format

A Proof-of-Concept Dissertation, which provides a pragmatic demonstration of a theoretical claim, using a quantitative study.

Historiography in the format of a Social Science Study (Introduction, Methods, Findings, Discussion, Conclusion), accompanied by a the Digital Rendering of the collected Data–the proof of concept itself.

Methods of Data Collection, Representation & Interpretation

Written from a data perspective, using theorists’ “functional concepts and techniques” useful to his project, but not attempting to defend any particular philosophical stance (47). He pulls from English studies, Digital Media studies, Geographic and Architectural studies.

Did an analysis of six Composition journals related to digital technology, quantifying the significant, recurring terms which appeared in all issues between 1994-2008.

The journals are Computers and Composition Online, Currents in Electronic Literacy, Enculturation, Kairos, PRE/TEXT: Electra(Lite), The Writing Instructor.

Created two, integrated, thematic maps, using GoogleEarth platform,
representing two diachronic sets of data:

  1. a proportional point symbol map that plots the location and magnitude of relevant data
  2. a concept magnitude map that tracks the distribution and prominence of recurrent terms

Information can be viewed in layers, or all at once, and all data is plotted by year, so the viewer can slide the “time line” left and right to watch how the data changes threw time.

The map is dynamic and interactive, in that the audience can explore the data in different levels, and also in that data can be added to the system, in order to extend and continue the research and its rendering.

All data is publicly accessible in both online and offline formats. The Online Map location is (however, the site expired on 2/27/2011).

Research Question/Concept Being Proven

Digital mapping technology offers us a new way of studying histories. In particular, the graphic representation of quantitative data can produce a qualitative understanding of historiography, which is impossible for solely textual work. While textual  historiography is limited to linear narrative-making through the close reading of people and events, digital mapping, although not superior to qualitative inquiry, provides valuable knowledge-making, by rendering a distant reading of multiple events and histories simultaneously (36).


Three very broad audiences

1. Rhetoric and Composition Scholars and Instructors: need to know our history of engagement with digital technology

2. Researchers: can adapt method of digital mapping

3. Administrators: can use map of department’s geographical diversity as evidence of institutional value

His literature reviews are primarily targeted to 1) Rhetoric and Composition–doing a lengthy review of the discussion surrounding historiography of Rhet/Comp and 2) Researchers and digital cartographers–with extensive review in the Methods section regarding cartography and the digital mapping of quantitative research.

Doesn’t assume that his audience has any background in digital cartography and the types of digital projects available online.

Grounding the Need for his Research

Tirrell goes to great lengths to argue for and demonstrate the use of his project on various levels. He does this by:

  • providing past precedents of very significant geographic mapping projects used by academics, the government, and grass-roots communities;
  • Citing philosophers and scholars within Rhetoric, Composition, Literature, and the Humanities who argue for the need of quantitative studies of the humanities and their history
  • Providing elaborate description of Rhet/Comp’s debates regarding the rhetorical nature of history, and history writing, arguing that his methods will provide a new and valuable form of historiography, which will practically benefit the field, as well as other fields in the humanities.


Post-Epistemology, or Rhetorical Epistemology, meaning that Tirrell rejects the post-positivist belief in a subject/representation divide or dichotomy (46).

For Tirrell, there is a real word which can be accurately known through quantitative measures. At the same time, he supports the fact that all knowledge production: textual, graphical, linear or simultaneous, is rhetorical in nature–meaning that the selection of information in necessary in any explanation, argument, or investigation human’s conduct.

He claims that histories usually privilege time and people as actors, largely because of the history’s grounding in text, and the need to therefore create a unifying, linear narrative, which cannot represent space. Tirrell suggest that geographic studies using quantitative data can tell more multiple histories, by showing where ideas appear and how they move over time. In this way, space becomes an active element of history, rather than a neutral container for human and temporal action.

Tirrell eschews the question of how we know and interpretation, however, by refusing to address the issue of causation, in favor of simply providing factual information which reveals correlation. He does not attempt to explain or investigate the material situations within the various locations he maps, but simply displays who said what, when.

What I’ve Learned from this Project

  1. A dissertation allows one to make many, many, arguments, about different topics, communities, conversations, and methods. This is accomplished by addressing your project in layers, and by providing the appropriate literature reviews for the various topics and communities you desire to speak to.
  2. Literature Reviews should be proportionate to the audiences you desire to attract/appeal to.
  3. Mixed methodology is accepted and encouraged within the Rhet/Comp field, especially when enacted in a meticulously thorough manner.
  4. Rhet/Comp researchers can build investigative tools which they intend to be used and revised by future scholars–COOL!
  5. If you are attempting to address several audience which would be considered interdisciplinary with your study, there will be large portions of your study which will be uninteresting to some of your audience members. The trick is to demonstrate that although some of your research may not be in a given audience one of your audience’s field, it is still rigorous, and relevant to the field.

Data Visualization: Part 1 FlowingData

One of my research interests has to do with the rhetoric of information visualization. How can data sets, philosophical concepts, metephysical theories, communities, geographies, narratives, relationships, and most of all, rhetorical ecologies, be conceptualized, theorized, investigated, and communicated through visual semiotics?

I’ll plan to accumulate a portfolio of posts with interesting leads and sites pertaining to this topic. At the moment, I am exploring the web site Few Web sites will stimulate your inventive imagination like this one. It also provides great research tools;

Like this one:, a free online database of statistical information, Google style (but with price tags on the “Premium Data”).

But don’t get me wrong, Flowing Data is also a play-ground of colorful, coded, info-lines and squiggles often reminiscent of trivial pursuit, with images depicting everything from the characterics of Dexter’s season 5 victums, to what each state is the “worst” in: