Improving the public’s understanding of COVID-19 data in charts and graphs

A UWM researcher is part of a team that is investigating how people interpret information about COVID-19 in graphs, maps and charts presented by the media.

A team of scientists from four universities, including UWM’s Min Sook Park, has been awarded a RAPID grant from the National Science Foundation to investigate not only whether the public understands these data representations, but also whether their level of understanding influences their perceptions of the pandemic’s severity.

Min Sook Park

Previous research suggests that many people have difficulty translating data representations into personal health decisions.

The team will also offer advice and suggestions on improving data representations through a website made available to educators and media outlets. The improved approaches to displaying data will also be incorporated into undergraduate STEM courses to increase scientific and mathematical literacy.

The researchers will interview a wide range of participants and develop models of their understanding of key concepts. Then they will develop research-based modifications to data representations and evaluate the extent to which those boost understanding.

The team, led by Cameron Byerley at the University of Georgia, also includes faculty at Arizona State University and a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

Already the team has found evidence that building animation into graphs makes it easier for people to digest them. So, one example of an improvement Byerley has identified is adding animation to show results unfolding over time.

“If a graph is moving – the experience of time is built into it – (then) people don’t have to track the change of time on the axes. It would just be built into the animation,” said Park, an assistant professor in UWM’s School of Information Studies.

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