We are awash in data.
Massive advances in digital sensors and computing power have made vast amounts of information available, no matter how trivial, all of it expanding by the second. We can follow the paths of diseases as they spread and map the routes that cars travel. The amount of data we now pull from the universe roughly doubles every year. We can mark how language has evolved by comparing the number of unique words used by Shakespeare with the number used by rappers. And, of course, governments have become proficient at tracking everyone’s digital footprint.
Making sense of all that we’ve stored in those bulging data bases is another matter. Finding patterns in the data — and understanding what all that information might mean — is becoming the Holy Grail of 21st century commerce, politics, journalism and academia. And one of the most effective ways to do this is through data visualization: the use of design to show what the numbers are telling us.
Flat bar graphs and pie charts are no longer enough. Digital technologies have opened the way to dynamic, colourful representations that dance across screens, offering an interactivity that allows us to play with the data and see different outcomes. Some visualizations are simply gorgeous, if opaque about what they purport to show. But the best tell us a story, using the new digital tools to convey complexity in ways that entertain and inform.
Yet for all the hype surrounding data visualization in the digital age, the art of displaying information in crowd-pleasing ways is not new. For several centuries, scientists and others have sought to turn statistics into pictures, looking to find and show patterns that make their findings accessible to the broader public. The aim has always been to make understandable what might otherwise be dismissed as arcane science.
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Earlier this year, the British Library in London hosted an exhibition that showed how science at its best has used design as a narrative tool to change the world. Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight combined diagrams from the -Library’s collection of parchment with modern, digital examples of data visualization, showing how the urge to create visual prompts has been a constant human impulse over the centuries.
The exhibits’ displays tell stories. Take the cholera map produced by physician Henry Acland in Victorian England which, by plotting an Oxford epidemic against other factors such as temperature, rainfall, barometric pressure, wind and cloud cover, proved that the disease was borne by water, not wind. His visualization of the cholera data can be seen here on page 46, alongside strikingly similar graphs from the 2012 Annual Report of the UK’s Chief Medical Officer showing infant mortality rates in 2009-11.
Digital technologies have allowed us to make enormous strides in our ability to animate data, of course. Today’s visual representations are in higher definition. The maps and charts morph and move. The opportunities for social and physical scientists to convey their work have never been so alluring.
And yet too many discoveries remain beyond the grasp of wider understanding because we fail to exploit the visual tools at our disposal. “In curating Beautiful Science, I was surprised — and also dismayed — to discover that much of the really good data visualization work was being done by designers, for lay communications,” wrote Johanna Kieniewicz, lead curator of the British Library exhibit, in her blog “At the Interface.” “There were certainly exceptions — scientists are absolutely capable of producing exceptionally engaging figures as our exhibition attests — but many figures that I encountered in research publications were, if not downright ugly and difficult to read, simply rather tedious.”
Kieniewicz has a PhD in earth and planetary science as well as a degree in fine arts, and her blog is devoted to exploring how art and science can better inspire each other. Her exhibit was a call for those who understand the quantitative power of the data to join with the designers and programmers who have the skills to express those data visually — to break out of silos — all in the name of weaving narratives in beautiful data.