Cindy Xiong Bearfield

Assistant Professor Encourages Critical Thinking Through Visualization Design

Cindy Xiong Bearfield cuts through the polarizing world of politics and conflict with data visualizations that anticipate pre-existing bias and encourage critical thinking.

The new assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing brings an extensive background in cognitive science to understand how visualization design impacts human behavior.

Xiong Bearfield, who earned her Ph.D. in Psychology from Northwestern University, said how data is presented influences human understanding and decision making. Those responses could lead to lasting benefits or consequences.

“My goal is to get people to think more critically about data and rely less on their pre-existing beliefs,” she said.

“Well-chosen visualization designs can make key patterns in data intuitive to see, while poorly chosen designs can leave important data patterns misunderstood. Building a foundational framework of human perception in visual data interpretation can help us design more effective visualizations for analytics and storytelling.”

Xiong Bearfield joins the School of Interactive Computing after two years as an assistant professor at the College of Information and Computer Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She received a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award while at UMass. She also co-authored five papers accepted by the 2023 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Visualization & Visual Analytics Conference.

With the support of the NSF, she is developing a model to measure trust in human-data interaction and enhance critical thinking through visual data communication.

Cindy Xiong Bearfield
New Assistant Professor Cindy Xiong Bearfield brings a cognitive approach to understanding data visualization. Her goal is for users to detach from pre-existing beliefs and think critically about data. (Photos by Kevin Beasley/College of Computing)

“Data visualization researchers don’t have a well-thought-out metric of measuring trust like other disciplines such as social psychology and political science,” she said. “We look to draw wisdom from how these other fields measure trust and devise our own metrics.”

Xiong Bearfield said her long-term work will include creating tools to help people build trustworthy data visualizations that calibrate people’s existing beliefs and elicit critical thinking.

To do that, researchers must first refine what trustworthy means in visual data communications.

“You have people who rely too much on data visualization and accept every suggestion and take everything the visualization shows you for granted,” she said. “There are also people who do not trust the data and dismiss the information without any consideration at all. We’re studying this concept of calibrated trust — how do you visualize information to position visualization readers to trust appropriately.”

Xiong Bearfield said she was attracted to her new position by the caliber of information visualization researchers at Georgia Tech, the collaborative environment, and the diversity of expertise across the School of Interactive Computing.

“There’s a strong visualization group here, and everyone has a unique take on information visualization, and they take a variety of research approaches,” she said.