Please forward to high school history teachers: Task-specific programming in social studies data viz

December 5, 2019 at 8:00 am 6 comments


We built this tool, DV4L (Data Visualization for Literacy), to help teachers quickly create data visualizations for social study classes. This is currently a minimum viable product (MVP) version of our tool, and we would like to collect your feedback so that we can improve! 

  • Please take a few moments and try out our tool at
  • We intend for DV4L to be intuitive and easy to use, so you shouldn’t need any instructions to start. (If you ever see a screen with ‘TOO MANY CONNECTIONS’ on the top, please just wait for a few seconds and refresh the page.)
  • After you have tried out the tool, please take a few minutes to fill out this survey at

We would really appreciate it if you could do this by Sunday Dec 8th to meet our class requirements. 

Feel free to share this with any other teachers or students who would like to try this out. Thank you so much!

I have been working with a team of four University of Michigan Computer Science students (in a class with Elliot Soloway) to develop a data visualization tool for history classes. They have a prototype ready for testing, and they need user data for their class by Sunday, December 8. Could you please forward this to any high school (or middle school) history teachers you know? They would also love to get some feedback from high school history students, too.

Here are three reasons why I’m excited about this tool.

First, the team really listened to us, our history professor collaborator (Tammy Shreiner), and the social studies teachers who gave us feedback on different data visualization tools. One of the students drove 2.5 hours to attend a participatory design session with social studies teachers in October. As an example, there are driving questions for each database, to guide students in what they might inquire about — that’s a specific request from Tammy.

Second, this is a tool for history inquiry. Data visualization tools like Vega-Lite and CODAP are terrific. (Readers of this blog know how impressed I am by Vega-Lite.) But they’re not designed for inquiry. As Bob Bain has taught me, historical inquiry starts from two pieces of evidence or two accounts that disagree. This tool is designed to support comparing different pieces of evidence, and maintaining a trace of what you’ve explored. Inquiry is about comparison, not from building a single visualization.

Third, this is task-specific programming in a subtle and interesting way. You build visualizations by making choices from pull-down menus on the left. As you find interesting graphs, you save them to the right. When you want to remember what the graph is about, you hover over it and get a textual representation of what pull-down menus generated this graph. I’m arguing that hover text is a program —- it’s a representation of the process for generating that graph, and it serves as a reminder of where you’ve been. It’s a program whose value is in reading it, not executing it.

Amy Ko told me once (I’m paraphrasing) that a program is a description of a process for the future. Using a tool is for now. A program represents the future. This program could be executed by the user in the future — set the pop-up menus to the same values, and you’ll get the same visualization. More importantly, the program represents the past and serves as a reminder for what you can do next.

Please do pass this around so that our team can get a sense of what’s working and what’s not in this prototype. Thanks!

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6 Comments Add your own

  • […] diverse student populations who are not in our CS classes. I’ve written here about my work developing data visualization tools for history classes. For a recent NSF proposal, I looked up the exam participation in the two Advanced Placement exams […]

  • 2. Kate Farrell  |  June 19, 2020 at 7:28 am

    Hi, is this tool publicly available? It looks really useful!
    Many thanks!

    • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  June 22, 2020 at 9:24 am

      Hi Kate — you can find a version at We’ve got two new versions (we’re trying to create a scaffolded path from the pictured tool into Vega-Lite) that I hope to have up on within the next couple weeks. We’re doing our first professional development session with these tools in August (!!! So exciting !!!).

      • 4. Kate Farrell  |  June 30, 2020 at 11:08 am

        Thanks Mark! Do you use this in combination with other tools like Gapminder?

        • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  June 30, 2020 at 7:43 pm

          Hi Kate — there’s an implication of “do you use this” that suggests that we have used this with teachers and classrooms. We have not yet. This is really fresh code. Our first use with social studies teachers in a participatory design session was in March literally two days before campus was shut down and all human-subjects research ceased. We’ve continued to develop, and we’re planning on an all-online professional development session in August with in-service social studies teachers. Yes, in our plans, GapMinder (and tools like CODAP) will also be offered. We’re also working on three other tools — I’m hoping a couple of them reach the stage where we can teacher use in August. (Our social studies work has no external funding. I believe in the direction, but progress is slow.)

  • […] been developing a data visualization tool explicitly designed for history inquiry (you may remember seeing it back here). We always show at least two visualizations, because historical problems start from two accounts […]


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