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What is visualisation, what does it do?

Data tells stories about the things it measures (e.g. climate change, hospital waiting lists etc.) but often this data is difficult to understand in its raw form of lists of numbers and text. Visualisation creates pictures from this data by using graphics, colour and interactivity to help us to reason, comprehend and explore trends that would normally be buried in the information. Presenting abstract data in this way draws on innate human capabilities to understand complex things when presented visually. For example, if you were making a long journey would you prefer to rely on a written list of directions or would your rather supplement this with a good map of the area you were travelling to.

This is not a new idea, throughout history statistical information in the form of maps, charts and diagrams of geographic, astronomic, financial and scientific knowledge have been displayed as images. However, recent years has seen a huge increase in numbers and types of visualisation; this has happened because:

1. The Internet is increasingly being used by governments to publish statistical information of all types;

2. New sets of digital and graphic tools have enabled ordinary people access to methods of visualizing this information that have previously only been available to specialists;

3. People are more interested in data and statistics as they become aware of how governments use them to make policy decisions.

These new forms of visualisation draw on expertise from graphic design, the visual arts, and statistical and computer science. They often have different names, including data visualisation, information visualisation, infoviz , info graphics or even scientific visualisation. So is it information visualisation, data visualisation, infoviz or something else?

On DataArt we don't like to get hung up on specific definitions and throughout our website we will use the terms information visualisation and data visualisation to mean the same thing. However some discussion of the differences between areas might be useful and will provide good starting points for your own research. It also provides for lively debate as some people may not agree with these definitions. In which case take it to the blog!

Information visualisation

Generally speaking information visualisation refers to ways of representing data and content using interactive graphics. Typically this information might be financial, scientific, geographic, library collections of films, music or web pages. Interaction with this visual information allows it to be seen from different viewpoints enabling fresh or surprising understandings of the content. An example might be navigating through content in a 3-dimensional digital space or generating a search for linked information in a large data set that can then be displayed visually rather than as a list. DataArt's Flared Music project would be an example of such an approach as it allows people to search for the information that the BBC holds on the music artists it plays and display them visually. Similarly DataArt's News Globe allows you to search the BBC News & Sport website by inputting search terms for topic features. It then marks the point on the globe in the areas in which the news story originated. DataArt's news globe is an example of what is called a geo-visualisation, a type of information visualisation that connects data to a specific geographic location.

Data visualisation

Data visualisation is a slightly broader term that also encompasses static graphics and other forms of information presentation such as infographics (e.g. bar and Pie charts). In data visualisation there tends to be more of an emphasis on the clear design of the information with a view to making it appear attractive to the eye. Good examples of data visualisation would include work by the Tokyo-based design company Information Architects whose Internet Trend Maps visualise the 140 most influential people on twitter and their posts; the larger the circle, the bigger the following.


Information Architect's Internet Trend Maps


Newsmap is a venerable visualisation built in 2004 by designer Marcos Weskamp. This project aggregates the ever-changing global news as a series of coloured blocks representing news topics (green for technology, blue for business, purple for health, red for world news etc.). Each block clusters related articles to show underlying connections and patterns between stories in a way that provoke thought and enables an “at a glance” overview of the state of the world's news.


Newsmap news visualisation


Scientific visualisation

This specialist form of visualisation is used by scientists to explore medical, biological, architectural and meteorological subjects. Often the information is visualised n 3D and relies on extremely powerful “supercomputers” to model and analyse very large-scale data sets. This example by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the US shows carbon dioxide plumes in the Earth's atmosphere.


Climate Visualisation