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Digital Education team blog


Ideas and reflections from UCL's Digital Education team


Walking in a data wonderland

By Samantha Ahern, on 9 January 2017

So where do we begin? Straight down the rabbit hole or some contextual rambling?

The contextual rambling.

I have recently been thinking about the logic puzzles, syllogisms, of Charles Dodgson and the literary work of his alter-ego Lewis Carroll – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  This and discussions with my colleague Dr Steve Rowett lead me to explore Anastasia Salter’s project Alice in Dataland (http://aliceindataland.net/).  Alice in Dataland is an experiment in critical making, an exploration guided by the question: “Why does Alice in Wonderland endure as a metaphor for experiencing media?”

Down the rabbit hole.

Exploring Anastasia’s project has generated some questions of my own; What if data is Alice and data analysis is Wonderland?

It has been noted that each new representation of Alice has showed her in a new and different way, it has been argued that these changes have added to our interpretation.  Is this also true of our analysis of data, or do we see “different truths” through different lenses of our analysis? In other words, do our analysis of data add to understanding by providing insight or do we alter the narrative told by data by how we choose to analyse or visualise it.

In August 2016 theNode (http://thenode.biologists.com/barbarplots/photo/) reported on the kickstarter campaign #BarBarPlots! with the focus of the campaign being how to avoid misleading representations of statistical data.  This follows on from a 2015 ban on null hypothesis significance testing procedures by the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology, which was discussed in an article by the Royal Statistical Society (https://www.statslife.org.uk/features/2114-journal-s-ban-on-null-hypothesis-significance-testing-reactions-from-the-statistical-arena).

Do these analyses constitute re-imaginings of the data and like the use of Photoshop and other media tools described by Salter re-imagine Wonderland or data analysis as a remediation of reality through a different lens?

When data is collected over time to create user profiles, and potential in learning analytics creating identities through narratives (data analysis and visualisation), again noted by Salter: “it is through narrative that we create and re-create selfhood” (Bruner, Jerome. Making stories: Law, literature, life. Harvard University Press, 2003.).  Are these generated identities subject to “defamiliarization of perception”; threatened by time as new data received alters our models and the story told? I am not sure, but it is an interesting thought.

white rabbit


One Response to “Walking in a data wonderland”

  • 1
    Jim Tyson wrote on 11 January 2017:

    Is analysis interpretative or constructive?

    The question is perennial and the rabbit hole has been investigated before. But, the problem is, in analysing the question we have to ask, is our analysis interpretative or constructive?

    Bizarrely, the solution that hasn’t been considered is that analysis (and in fact all intellectual activity is *both*. When we analyse data, we both cast light on the world providing new insights and create an opportunity to view the world anew. I am loathe to say it almost, but it’s dialectical.

    In terms of learning analytics, it seems to me that both possibilities present themselves: we will understand them as lighting out way to understand who learners are and we will use them to construct new identities for learners. The risk with the latter is that we fall into a new variety of labeling theory.

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