Vizpol Research
3 min readJun 18, 2020
VizPol in Action (Also check out: Quick Video | More Detailed Walkthrough Video)

VizPol is an app designed to provide journalists with contextual information about unfamiliar graphic symbols they may encounter during field reporting, especially during live events, protests, and rallies. By offering journalists some additional information about these symbols (or just alerting them to the fact that a symbol may have broader political connotations) the VizPol app supports more accurate, effective reporting on an increasingly complex political landscape.


VizPol began as the Political Visual Literacy Project in the spring of 2019 as a research collaboration among faculty and researchers at Columbia Journalism School, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, and the Digital Video MultiMedia Lab, all at Columbia University. Inspired by photojournalism professor Nina Berman’s desire to for a tool that would help her better understand in real-time the unfamiliar imagery she was observing at political rallies and protests, the goal of the project is to combine cutting-edge computer vision techniques with human expertise to provide users with context for a broad range of political graphics and symbols. Now under development for more than a year, VizPol is available as both a mobile and web app, with new symbols being added by researchers and users on a regular basis.

Current contributors:

  • Nina Berman, Professor of Journalism, Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University
  • Shih-Fu Chang, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, Columbia University
  • Susan McGregor, Assistant Director, Tow Center for Digital Journalism
  • Ishaan Jhaveri, Computational Research Fellow, Tow Center for Digital Journalism
  • Guangxing Han, Postdoctoral researcher, DVMM Lab, Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, Columbia University
  • Keya Imani Rice, MS Documentary Specialization ’20, Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University

Past contributors:

  • Svebor Karaman
  • Xu Zhang
  • Bhaskar Ghosh
  • Jessica Peng
  • Michael Deng Li

Funding and other support

VizPol has received substantial staffing and research support from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and the Digital Video and Multimedia Lab in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Additional funding has also been provided by the Center for Data, Media & Society at Columbia University’s Data Science Institute, and the Brown Institute for Media Innovation.

The VizPol team also wishes to extend special thanks to Sam Thielman and the researchers, photo professionals and users who have shared their time, energy and images to help improve the quality of the project.

Publications and media coverage

The VizPol app (as of March 2020) is described in detail here: The Political Visual Literacy App: Real-Time Symbol Recognition for Field Reporting, Computation + Journalism Symposium, 2020.

We have also written about our reporting and development process in Columbia Journalism Review:

“When is a frog not a frog? Building a new digital tool to track political symbols”, Columbia Journalism Review, September 26, 2019.

“Political symbols at demonstrations”, Columbia Journalism Review, June 2, 2020.

External media coverage

ARTICLE: “A birdwatchers’ app inspires a field-guide to protesters’ symbols”, The Economist, June 13, 2020.

PANEL: “Reading the Symbols of Political Movements: A Joint Reading the Pictures/Columbia University Tow Center and Data Science Institute Salon”, December 11, 2020.

ARTICLE: “VizPol takes a cue from bird-watching apps to help journalists identify unfamiliar political symbols”, Sarah Scire, Nieman Lab, June 3, 2020.

ARTICLE: “What does that tattoo mean? AI app decodes extremist political symbols”, Stephen Shankland, C|NET, June 20, 2020.

ARTICLE: “Are they fascists or anti-fascists? The “VizPol” app recognizes attitudes based on symbols”, Malte Lehming, Der Tagesspiegel, February 16, 2021. [Original title in German: Sind es Faschisten oder Antifaschisten? Die “VizPol”-App erkennt Gesinnung anhand von Symbolen]



Vizpol Research

A collaborative research project at Columbia University building apps to help journalists identify unfamiliar political symbols in the field.