The Science of Information Visualisation: a provocation
What is a Science?
Taking the broadest definition, a science can be described as the systematic organisation of a body of knowledge that describes the physical world. Knowledge evolves and is established through the collation and testing of data with measurable outcomes. This becomes integrated into existing information or corrects previous assumptions. The number of Bachelor and Master of Science courses related to the field of information study pay testament to the notion that the design and visualisation of information straddles the boundaries between art and science. Information visualisation is not the mere decoration of factual information. It is elemental to the construction of meaning and how it is perceived. It’s what Richard Saul Wurman calls ‘the design of understanding’.
Image: Viral Blocks by Diego Baca is an interactive program, which was created to inform users about the subject of genetics and viruses. It presents this visual information as 3D animations, making it easier to understand abstract concepts and promoting learning through an engaging and enjoyable experience. The program utilises Processing language and Lego’s computer brick.
The Art and Science of Visual Representation
Art and science are often seen as being polar extremes requiring affiliation to one or the other. This is a false dichotomy. The Information Design Café, a place on the Internet for the exchange of views, values both as integral partners and regards information design and visualisation as ‘the art and science of presenting information so that it is understandable and easy to use: effective, efficient and attractive’.
From Philosophy to Physics
Jef Raskin, who created the Macintosh project at Apple, states ‘the founder of information theory, Claude Shannon, moved information from the realm of philosophers to that of physicists by showing that the term could be given a clear definition’. Shannon quantified what information was and qualified the means by which information was encoded, transmitted and decoded. This is not to sever the philosophical roots of communication or to suggest that this is the complete picture, but to acknowledge information study as a science as well as an art.
Scientists need Vision
When scientists fail to explain a particular phenomenon of the natural world through laboratory experiments, they have to look to other methods. They have to turn off the Bunsen burner, take off their goggles and white coats to employ visualisation as a method of understanding what they encounter. Unfortunately this is not always an innate skill amongst scientists. There is an argument that information visualisation techniques should be part of the core curricula, not only for all university subjects, but also as part of a child’s education at school. We have arrived at the point where visual literacy is an essential skill in an increasingly visual age. Interestingly vision is the word used as a metaphor when a shift in paradigm is required. Not that surprising though as scientists themselves tell us that sight has 85% dominance over the other senses. What is surprising is that successive British governments fail to acknowledge visual methods as intrinsic to solving many of the challenges facing society. They pay lip service to design as the gloss on the surface that momentarily deludes the public. They see subject disciplines as separate and unrelated and fund accordingly. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) describe the ‘strategically important subjects’ as science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the so-called STEM subjects. Science is a label, albeit one with current cachet. It shouldn’t be important, but it is, that we equally label aspects of visual communication as a science for it to be taken as a serious and ‘strategically important’ subject. There is some hope – US President Obama has appointed Edward Tufte as a special adviser to the White House. Who would the next British Prime Minister appoint? What examples can we offer our politicians of the importance of the visual to scientific methods? Who were those pioneers who dared to cross the borders, to and fro, to understand and explain the perplexing phenomena facing them?
Is there a Doctor in the House?
During the first two weeks of September 1854 an epidemic broke out in central London that claimed 500 lives. A number of the deaths were located at the junction between Broad Street and Cambridge Street. This was also the site of a public well where people would draw up water. Dr John Snow acquired the records of 83 deaths in the area and plotted them on a map. By doing so Snow had taken quantitative data and made it visible. By visualising information Snow revealed that all but 10 of the 83 deaths were within close vicinity of the Broad Street pump. He then set about explaining the anomalies. Snow alerted the authorities, who intervened by removing the pump handle thus disabling its function. Some have attributed this act as the decisive moment in the termination of the epidemic. Snow had established the link between the transmission of the epidemic and impure water.
Image: The Cholera Map by Dr John Snow shows the geographic distribution of death by Cholera.
‘Nursing is an Art…the Finest of Fine Arts’
This heading is a quote by Florence Nightingale, an English nurse with a talent for mathematics. She plotted the daily loss of life during the winter months of the Crimean War on her own invention – the polar diagram. Nightingale presented this visual information to the Ministry of War as evidence of soldiers dying due to disease and poor nursing and not as a result of their immediate battle wounds. Charts, diagrams and graphs are seen as the domain of the mathematician but, in terms of visual communication, are owned in equal measure by the information designer.
Image: The Polar Diagram by Florence Nightingale shows preventable death represented by the blue wedges, deaths resulting from wounds in red, and death due to other causes in black.
The Periodic Table
Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleyev is credited with devising the arrangement of all known elements into the Periodic Table. Elements had been grouped in two ways previously – either by their atomic weight (hierarchy) or by common properties such as metals or gases (category). Mendeleyev’s discovery was that these two methods could be combined in one table. It has been suggested that Mendeleyev was inspired by the game of patience, in which cards are arranged horizontally in suits and vertically by descending number. Using this concept he arranged the elements into horizontal rows called periods and vertical rows called groups. This visual display of information demonstrated two sets of relationships depending on whether one was reading the table up and down or from side to side. Elements are organised vertically to express chemicals with similar properties for example metals sit one on top of each other. The horizontal rows are organised by the number of protons in their nuclei, known as the atomic number. Hydrogen has one proton and therefore has an atomic number of one and is placed first in the top left corner. Mendeleyev’s invention allows the relationship between elements to be understood through visual means. In the book ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, Bill Bryson describes the Periodic Table as ‘a thing of beauty in the abstract, but for chemists it established an immediate orderliness and clarity that can hardly be overstated’. In the view of Robert E Krebs who wrote ‘The History and Use of Our Earth’s Chemical Elements’ the Periodic Table is ‘the most elegant organisational chart ever devised’.
Image: The Periodic Table by Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleyev demonstrates the strength of visual cross referencing.
New Information Landscapes
Physicist Hans Christian von Baeyer opens his book, ‘Information: The New Language of Science’ with the following: ‘information gently but relentlessly drizzles down on us in an invisible, impalpable electric rain’. Our lives are becoming progressively intricate and the inability to filter complexity is leading to information fatigue and sensory overload. Journalist Nico Macdonald explains that ‘most of us still try to comprehend this glut of data using representations from the era of print – many based on text rather than image. Our ability to present information in a useful and intelligent manner is falling behind our ability to create and distribute the raw data’. We need new innovations to move beyond placing printed information behind glass screens. Information geographers must fashion a new digital landscape and one that can be traversed visually. Macdonald suggests ‘evolution has left humans with brains that are as much visual as they are analytical, able to distinguish and group objects by size, colour, shape and spatial location. Our brains are adept at identifying patterns’. The dilemma for designers is how to present information, retaining its levels of complexity, yet making it accessible. Information visualisation attempts to present vast quantities of data through interfaces that allow information to be filtered and manipulated to the needs of the individual and the moment. Words are exclusive and contingent on an understanding of language; images are inclusive and more widely recognisable and understood. Hugh Dubberly states that ‘when we design things more complex than single objects – systems, sets of elements, interactions and pathways – we need a new approach.’ He believes design ‘needs now to be more about making complex, abstract ideas visible than about creating objects’. Information visualisation uses visual metaphors such as graphic sliders and fish eye lens views to alter the intensity of different aspects of information. This new era of information visualisation could borrow an idea from motorway signage, that of progressive disclosure. We do not need to see the entire database of information rather we need interfaces that provide gradual access to levels of information.
Image: The Interactive Tree Of Life is an online tool for the display and manipulation of phylogenetic trees. A phylogenetic tree, also known as an evolutionary tree, is a diagram with a complex branch system. The tree demonstrates the connections between biological species based on their genetic characteristics.
Map of the Market
Much of the design on the net has focused on graphic navigation systems but once you encounter information it is often in the form of text or graphics that adhere to a print tradition. Map of the Market, an example of a treemap, was created for smartmoney.com. The website features an interface comprised of rectangular subdivisions which resemble an aerial photograph of land use. Each rectangle or ‘field’ represents one of 600 companies organised within industry sector clusters. The size of the rectangle relates to the company’s market capitalisation. Each company’s fortunes are represented by colour. Red indicates a fall and green a rise. Additional rollovers and clickable items provide up to date news stories and in-depth information pertaining to each company.
Image: The Map of the Market by Martin Wattenberg represents the use of colour and area as powerful visual tools in creating an interface to complex information.
Ben Shneiderman at the University of Maryland challenges his students to present vast datasets in visually approachable and useful ways. The Film Finder project required students to propose an interface for accessing information from a database of 10,000 films. Devices such as A-Z range sliders enable information such as film or actor details to be viewed in alphabetical order. This is known as ‘direct manipulation’ of information. The interface features a timeline with film genres colour-coded. Additional buttons allow for films to be viewed by certificated rating and awards.
Image: Film Finder by Christopher Ahlberg, Staffan Truvé and Ben Shneiderman
Steve Holtzman, a leading commentator on digital developments, describes the concept of designers and artists working in the digital medium as ‘sculpting in ones and zeros’. Holtzman continues ‘…information is now, in this information age, taking its rightful place beside energy and matter as a fundamental shaper of the world we live in. Of the three, only information is at the heart of who and what we are. It is a manifestation of our humanity that, in digital form, is sculpting new worlds. Self-expression in digital form is, literally, a process of information design’.
Image: Colour Volume by Timon Botez utilises the knowledge of physics software specialist Justin Manor. Botez re-imagined Munsell‘s three-dimensional colour system to analyse and disassemble selected works of art into volume representations.
Colour Science and Theory
Colour can be described in terms of its physiological, psychological and socio-cultural effects. Colour theory covers aspects such as: hue (primary, secondary and tertiary colours); saturation; tone; complimentary colours; temperature; advancing and receding colours; vibrancy; and harmony. Students of design will often undertake many different colour exercises in order to experiment with and understand the effects of colour. It is also important to understand how colour changes through different lighting conditions and media such as print and screen. Scientists can describe the biology of the eye and the mechanics of the brain but how does this lead us to feel emotion or touch our soul or leave us with a memorable experience? Biologist and neuroscientist Steven Rose explains how information becomes perception and meaningful: ‘…it happens in the visual cortex itself; multiple interconnections link the separate modules, integrating their separate analyses; the flow of signals between them is the mechanism of perception’. Once again we have a scientific explanation but are still wondering how information can be prepared for consumption. What are the attributes of information, its design and visualisation?
Image: I Feel Pain by Orapan Limbutara provides visual diagnostic tools for determining the type, location and intensity of pain. Limbutara had discovered cases of incorrect diagnosis where spoken language had been a barrier to understanding. Colour is used to represent pain intensity.
From Information to Visualisation
Information is comprised of components known as data; these components are things like words, numbers, statistics and facts. Design is the act of conceiving a plan or intention that determines the look and function of something before it is produced. Information design and visualisation is concerned with explaining complexity through visual means to enable understanding. Information design is the selection, organisation and presentation of data in a form that is of most value to an intended user. The primary purpose of information design is to help its users to understand and experience the world better. Giving visual form to information can make it more accessible, usable and enjoyable thereby reducing uncertainty. Information design records our experience of existence and presents this accumulated knowledge through formats such as: books, guides, exhibitions, maps, signage, interfaces, instruction manuals, television and the Internet. Information design has evolved to meet specific human needs and in doing so has contributed to the shaping of civilisation. We encounter information in different environments such as printed matter; three-dimensional spatial contexts; and the screen interface. Each shapes our experience and perception of information.
Where am I?
Imagine for a moment a world without directional signs; no maps to guide us from A to B; entering a building that has no signage; being asked to operate something that has no instructions; trying to read a publication without headings; attempting to find the way through a website that has no means of navigation. You are imagining a world without information visualisation or feedback about our environment. It would be a disorientating experience.
Data, Information, Knowledge and Wisdom
Information resides in a hierarchy that begins with data: data is transformed into information; information provides knowledge; and wisdom is the ability to apply knowledge. Data alone is of little value; the way data is presented provides its context and builds meaning. Richard Grefé, Executive Director of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), observes that ‘design is the intermediary between information and understanding’. How are we to organise information in order to better understand it?
In the book Information Architects, Richard Saul Wurman proposes that there are five main ways of organising information. To facilitate easy memory of this system he devised the acronym LATCH. L is for Location: maps organise information so that locations may be perceived by their geographical relationship to each other. A represents Alphabet: dictionaries, encyclopaedias and telephone directories use this system to organise words, concepts and names. T is for Time: museums often organise their exhibitions chronologically using timelines. C represents Category: this is a method often employed by department stores and supermarkets. H is for Hierarchy: hierarchy is a value system that places things in relative importance to one another.
We can’t do it alone
Information design is a process of making information more useable through a variety of design methodologies and requires an awareness of: instructional design, technical writing, web design, print, publication design, interface design, interactivity, programming, user experience design, information architecture, written and oral communications, human factor concerns, ethnography, cognitive psychology, semantics, syntax, linguistics, semiotics, communication theory, typography, illustration, diagramming, user research and testing. Complex information schemes require multi-, cross- and inter-disciplinary teamwork.
Isolation or Integration?
To view science in isolation from other fields of enquiry is to deny the complexity and history of human development. Educational theorists talk in terms of integrative learning – a method that seeks to connect complex and often contradictory perspectives. The ability to integrate knowledge enables holistic views to be made and judgments taken. Seeing only some of the parts and not the sum of the parts allows only a partial view and can lead to less informed decision-making. Ben Shneiderman of the Human Computer Interaction Laboratory (University of Maryland) suggests that ‘the purpose of visualisation is insight, not pictures’. Science can utilise and benefit from insights outside the immediate discipline as much as it can inform human progress and knowledge. Scientists may need artists and designers to draw the pictures for them but true visual insight reveals and enlightens. Scientists can’t always see the data or the meaning behind the data until it has been put into an appropriate visual form. Scientists at NASA required information designer Edward Tufte to re-draw the graph for them. The graph visually explained the data behind the avoidable Challenger disaster of 1986. They had the data, they even tried crude visual representations but they just couldn’t extrapolate meaning without Tufte’s intervention. They could describe but couldn’t interpret. The before and after graphical representations of data can be seen here. By visualising data correctly the disaster as shown on CNN below could have been avoided. Perhaps the top down management decision to launch under known dangerous conditions would not have been taken. Particularly if the visual case for not doing so had been transparently presented to the world. The primacy and the relative unilateralism of the traditional sciences has been questioned and found wanting. The scientists can’t do it alone and nor should they be expected to.
Information Visualisation, Nico Macdonald, Eye Magazine, Issue 49, 2003
A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson, Black Swan, 2004
World Without Words, Michael Evamy, Laurence King, 2003
Visual Explanations, Edward Tufte, Graphics Press, 1997
Information Architects, Richard Saul Wurman, Graphis Publications, 1997
Information Design, Robert Jacobson, The MIT Press, 2000
Readings in Information Visualisation, Stuart Card, Jock Mackinlay
Ben Shneiderman, Academic Press, 1999
The Craft of Information Visualisation, Benjamin Bederson, Ben Shneiderman, Morgan Kaufman Publishers, 2003
Diego Baca Viral Blocks website
Interactive Tree of Life website