Faculty Research Spotlight: Candice Welhausen and Data Visualization


Outbreaks of diseases like Zika, Ebola and yellow fever can induce fear and panic in people across the globe. Although the diseases may spread quickly, the panic can spread even faster. The manner in which we receive information about these epidemics influences the extent of our fear and panic.

Candice Welhausen, an assistant professor in the Department of English, studies how quantitative information about epidemic diseases is presented to the public through data visualization tools – the maps, graphs, and charts agencies like the World Health Organization commonly use. Welhausen developed her interest in the subject while working at the University of New Mexico’s (UNM) Health Sciences Center as a technical writer in the department formerly known as Epidemiology and Cancer Control. She finished a master’s degree and went on to complete her PhD in rhetoric and composition at UNM. In August 2017, Welhausen joined the Auburn faculty in the English Department. In addition to teaching courses in the Professional and Public Writing track and the Master of Technical and Professional Communication Program, she is working on a book project about the past, present, and future of data visualization.

“Data visualization is basically visual representations of quantitative or statistical information. If you’ll recall last year’s Zika outbreak, they often showed maps in the news to explain how the disease was spreading throughout Brazil and the Southern Hemisphere and then to Puerto Rico. The maps focused on the mosquitos and what the geographic range was,” explains Welhausen.

“While maps were most common with Zika, the Ebola epidemic in West Africa a couple of years earlier also included timelines to show the duration of the outbreak along with other types of charts showing the number of cases.”

Welhausen explains that different types of data visualization are used depending on the epidemic and its affected region as well as what the creator of the graphic wants to convey, and the design of these tools shape how different cultures perceive their risk associated with the epidemic. Language-based content can communicate one thing while visual content may say something else. Certain visual messaging may actually communicate the appearance of less control over an outbreak and thus increase risk perception. Communicating this complex information across cultures is a challenge, and Welhausen says several design factors, such as colors and amount of text used, and whether a culture is high-context or low-context—that is, how explicitly information tends to be conveyed—can influence perceptions. 



Through her research, Welhausen finds that using warm colors like red and yellow which convey “active”, “hot”, “emotional,” and “sharp” concepts can increase a person’s risk perception. She says that including additional explanatory text is important because there are differences in the exchange of information. High context cultures like in Asia and Africa tend to rely on more implicit messaging. The situation and the people involved can be more important than the actual words that are communicated. Conversely, low-context cultures like Europe and the US tend to rely on what we would consider more overt messaging.

“As public health efforts to control epidemics are increasingly enacted globally, understanding the ways that risk messages influence perceptions among audiences from different cultures with different communication expectations will continue to be important,” says Welhausen.

Data visualization is not a new concept. In fact, it’s been around for centuries. Some examples in the US are maps from the 1700’s, which were created during yellow fever outbreaks. “I’ve conducted some historical research where I looked at some of the oldest surviving maps of yellow fever. I wrote an article that recounts the history of yellow fever maps and the design features of the maps as well as how they were used to make decisions about how to potentially control the disease,” says Welhausen.

As technology has advanced, data visualization has become more common and essential to making, what is often, abstract information concrete. “Communication has become more visual, and visual and textual information really complement each other,” says Welhausen. “For instance, you may want to visualize a map of the mosquitos that spread Zika to show the geographic range, but you would also want to include text that talks about what your graphic shows. Your text should tell your readers what you want them to see in that graphic.”

Data visualization is just one of the many tools technical communicators use to shape the way the public responds to epidemics. Research from professors like Candice Welhausen will help increase the effectiveness of how information about life threatening health and medical issues is conveyed, impacting individuals across the globe.



Last Updated: May 21, 2018