Science blog

13 posts categorized "Data visualisation"

20 January 2014

Beautiful Science Preview

Johanna Kieniewicz spills a few beans on the upcoming British Library exhibition

We are now just a month out from the British Library’s first science exhibition: Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight. Life in our team right now is a whirlwind of writing captions, finalising commissions, testing interactives and liaising with our press office. But all for a good reason. Opening February 20th, Beautiful Science will highlight the very best in graphical communication in science, linking classic diagrams from the Library’s collections to the work of contemporary scientists. The exhibition will cover the subject areas of public health, weather and climate and the tree of life, telling stories both of advances in science, as well as look at the way in which we communicate and visualise scientific data.


Picturing Data

Data is coming out our ears. From data collected by our mobile phones and movements about the city to the data acquired by scientists when sequencing genomes or smashing subatomic particles together, the quantities are vast. While a simple table of numbers is a form of data visualisation in itself, our human ability to scan, analyse and identify patterns and trends is limited.

William Farr, 1852, Report on the Mortality of Cholera in England 1848-1849

Whilst today we see a proliferation of data visualisation, it is hardly a new phenomenon, and might even be considered a rediscovery of the ‘Golden Age’ of statistical graphics of the late 19th century. Like today, the Victorian period featured a confluence of new techniques for data collection, developments in statistics and advances in technology created an environment in which data graphics flourished. In Beautiful Science, we highlight a number of graphics from this period—some of which are well known, others of which may prove to be more of a surprise, such as this piece on cholera mortality by epidemiologist and statistician William Farr.


Inspiring Insight

The very best visualisations of scientific data, do not merely present it, but also inspire insight and reveal meaning. Data visualisation is both a tool through which we can analyse and interpret data, but also functions as a method by which we communicate its meaning. It is most powerful when it does both.

Circles of Life, Martin Krzywinski, 2013

In curating Beautiful Science, we were keen to highlight the ways in which the visualisation of data is integral to the scientific process, as well as the way cutting edge science is communicated. The Circos diagrams used to display genomic data do this very well. In Beautiful Science, you can examine a comparison of the human genome with both closely and distantly related animals. Here, you see that we are quite closely related to the chimpanzee (though we presume you knew that already). But what about a chicken or a platypus? You’ll have to come to the exhibition and see for yourself.



Beautiful Science

Should we impose an aesthetic upon the presentation of scientific information? Or is beauty indeed in the eye of the beholder? We take a rather agnostic position in this debate, and rather seek to inspire the exhibition visitor with both intriguing images and inspiring ideas. What is clear, however, is that scientists should take care and be thoughtful when producing their graphics. In a world where research impact is ever more important, producing images that compellingly communicate discoveries is of increasing importance.

NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

Compelling imagery is something at which the NASA Scientific Visualisation Studio excels. Something like a model of ocean currents might potentially be quite dry and dull. Originally developed for a scientific purpose, would not colour coded vectors increasing and decreasing size not do the job? With a leap of insight, they developed a visualisation that is both informative and inspiring. We hope you will watch it with awe in the entry to the exhibition, tracking the Gulf Stream as it moves water northwards towards the British Isles, bringing us our temperate climate.


Even More Beautiful Science

A fantastic programme of events will also accompany the exhibition. From serious debate to science comedy shows, competitions, workshops and family activities, we’ve developed a programme that’s designed to make you think. Please join us!


Beautiful Science runs from 20 February to 26 May, 2014, is sponsored by Winton Capital Management, and is free to the public.

06 December 2013

Visualising Research

This week we are excited to announce the launch of a data visualisation competition (and workshop), sponsored by the AHRC and BBSRC

We talk quite a lot about data on the Science Blog and have previously highlighted the role we are playing in helping researchers to discover, access or cite scientific data. But working at the British Library means we have the fantastic opportunity to bring our collections and contemporary research to the wider public through our exhibitions. Earlier in the year we gave you a taster of Beautiful Science  - an exhibition launching in February 2014, that will explore scientific data visualisation from past to present. Some famous historical names, such as Florence Nightingale, knew the power of displaying data – her iconic diagram (pictured) not only enabled any viewer to quickly grasp the meaning but led to changes in the way those injured in war were treated.


As part of our celebration of all things data and our exhibition, we have been working with the Arts & Humanities Research Council and the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council on a competition that challenges entrants to bring UK Research Council data to life. An added bonus - we hope - is that the competition aims to encourage people from different disciplines to work together, since presenting complex data not only requires mathematical, computing or scientific skills but strong expertise in art and design. A key criteria for the judges will be whether the entries convey the meaning to a wide audience and so they will be looking for that combination of valid data that tells a compelling story.

Around £3 billion of Government funding is apportioned annually between the seven UK Research Councils, which are responsible for different discipline areas. The Research Councils then distribute that funding to their various communities on the basis of applications made by researchers, which are subject to independent, expert peer review. Applications are judged by considering a combination of factors, including their scientific excellence, timeliness and promise, strategic relevance, economic and social impacts, industrial and stakeholder relevance, value for money and staff training potential. Until recently it wasn’t easy to combine funding data from different Research Councils or to explore how it was distributed across the country. And the finer grained detail, while it may have been available from an individual Council, was difficult to tease out or integrate. Behind the scenes, Research Councils worked together to make details of the research they fund available from one place. The culmination of that commitment is Gateway to Research - a database that anyone can use. The data is available programmatically and under an open government licence which means that anyone is free to interrogate it – you can extract it all, download it to your own systems, apply your own analysis tools and generally think of things to do with it that no one else has done before.

The challenge of the competition is to use the Gateway to Research data to tell a compelling story that anyone will be able to understand. While designers, graphic artists, software developers and programmers may have a particular interest, anyone and everyone is invited to produce a visualisation (on a website) that will show how this public funding contributes to research in the UK. Details of the competition are here. Entries forms will be available from 27 January 2014 and the closing date is 21 March 2014. Our judges include Jackie Hunter, Chief Executive, BBSRC, Katy Borner, Victor H. Yngve Professor of Information Science, Indiana University and Guardian Digital Agency.

On 24 January 2014, we are holding a workshop at the British Library for anyone who wants to find out more. Please register if you want some inspiration, information about the Gateway to Research database and to meet potential collaborators. Representatives from the AHRC and BBSRC will be there on the day, as well as data visualisation evangelists (Guardian Digital Agency) and developers (Cottage Labs) who have worked with the data. We will also have Andrew Steele from Scienceogram who is using public data to make the case for science in the UK.

Lee-Ann Coleman

16 August 2013

Divining the Deluge

Data visualisation isn’t just about making pretty graphics. It’s also helping scientists make new discoveries. Johanna Kieniewicz explores how data is displayed and provides a teaser for the Science Team’s upcoming exhibition.

We are awash in data. Whether it’s the vast amounts of genomic data being sequenced every day by bioscientists, data generated by human activity and transactions, or the 15 petabytes of data produced per year by the Large Hadron Collider, we are up to our necks in data. But hopefully swimming, not drowning. Mechanisms are being set up to harness the power of this data and make sure it is suitable and available for future use. DataCite is busy enabling researchers to get credit for their data, research funders are encouraging their scientists to think about where their data goes, and the open data movement and the principles of open data have been embraced by the UK Government with the development of the Open Data Institute and But when it comes to the analysis of all this data, how do we make sense of endless strings of 1’s and 0’s? C’s, G’s, T’s, A’s? One cross-cutting tool that unites fields as seemingly unrelated as genetics, climate science and finance is data visualisation.

Binary Matrix 122204205

Visualisation is key to our ability to identify trends, patterns and correlations within scientific data, thereby deriving meaning and making discoveries. While a glance at the Guardian Data Store or a website like Visual Complexity might lead you to believe that the visualisation of data is a fad that has washed in with this most recent tidal wave of data, it is actually something that has been with us much longer. On the extreme end, we can trace ideas around data visualisation to cuneiform markings on clay tablets and early maps of our universe. However, our modern graphic representation of data owes a great deal to the Scottish statistician, William Playfair, with his ground-breaking statistical graphics of social, political and economic data. Many of these techniques were adopted by 19th century epidemiologists grappling with the cholera outbreaks ravaging London. Other techniques were adopted by those who were looking at the weather; or attempting to organise and rationalise all life on our planet onto a single piece of paper.
Where data visualisation and statistical graphics, as we know them, started.  From William Playfair’s Commercial and Political Atlas, 1786.

Fast forward to the 21st century. Thanks to John Snow, we now know what causes cholera. But we are still mapping it, and now using genomic visualisations to identify the source of the 2010 Haiti cholera outbreak. We have moved beyond the three dimensional ‘heat map’ to bring in the component of time, producing detailed visualisations of how systems evolve over seconds or decades. And data need not be static; it can be dynamic and interactive. But despite these changes to the data itself and our means of visualising it, scientists are still making the same sorts of choices as in the 19th century about visualisation—what should we display? Using what method? How do we create an image that tells a thousand words? And so on…


Data visualisation today. The interactive tool, Gapminder World, uses data visualisation for global good, looking at trends in the health and wealth of nations.

These are issues that we in the Science Team at the British Library are thinking about in particular depth at the moment. Opening in February 2014, our exhibition, Beautiful Science, will look at the past and present of data visualisation in science, bringing together classic visualisations from the Library’s collection with cutting edge visualisations from today’s scientists and designers. We will tell stories of advances both in how we think about data, along with the scientific stories that the data tells.  We aren’t quite ready to let the cat out of the bag yet in terms of what we’ll be showing… but stay tuned for a mixture of the interesting, intriguing and unexpected. We’re excited and we hope you follow us on this journey!

Johanna Kieniewicz

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