I’m fascinated with the ways in which data and scientific information is visualized. It’s a rich area for communication and, often, seriously undervalued. That said, the saying ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ is pure bunkum. There are times when pictures are better than words and there are times when you absolutely must have the words and the pictures and there are times when all you need are the words.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, … (Elizabeth Barrett Browning)
Do these words need a picture? I say, no. As for times when pictures are better than words, try putting together furniture or anything else in a kit using written instructions only. Well illustrated diagrams are all you need for something relatively simple.
Poetry and technical instructions are highly specialized instances and, in most cases, words and pictures together are best as they convey different information and reinforce each other. You need the words to supply context, while the visualization offers an experience. Take a look at this video featuring,
The winners of the 2010 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge, sponsored jointly by the journal Science and the National Science Foundation (NSF), share spectacular photographs, graphics, illustrations and video that engage viewers by conveying the complex substance of science through different art forms.
The video presents interviews with Science News editor Colin Norman and the first-place winners, produced by Natasha Pinol and edited by Carla Schaffer of the Science Press Package. (from Youtube).
and then imagine not having a single verbal (i.e., ‘word-ridden’) explanation.
(BTW, there is a nanotechnology reference towards the end of this video.) All of this is by way of noting that the 2011 competition has been announced. From the Feb. 18, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,
The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the journal Science created the International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge to celebrate that grand tradition–and to encourage its continued growth. The spirit of the competition is for communicating science, engineering and technology for education and journalistic purposes.
Judges appointed by NSF and Science will select winners in each of five categories: Photography, Illustrations, Informational Posters and Graphics, Interactives Games and Non-Interactive Media. The winning entries will appear in a special section in Science and Science Online, and on the NSF website, and one of the winning entries will be pictured on the front cover. In addition, each winner will receive a one-year print and on-line subscription to the journal Science and a certificate of appreciation.
You can find guidelines and entry forms here. Interestingly there was a Feb. 12, 2011 news item on physorg.com that focused on visualizing scientific data as part of the process rather than as a presentation of the results (i.e. the kind of work you’ll see in the video),
Peter Fox and James Hendler of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are calling for scientists to take a few tips from the users of the World Wide Web when presenting their data to the public and other scientists in the Feb. 11 issue of Science magazine. Fox and Hendler, both professors within the Tetherless World Research Constellation at Rensselaer, outline a new vision for the visualization of scientific data in a perspective piece titled “Changing the Equation on Scientific Data Visualization.”
As the researchers explain, visualizations provide a means to enable the understanding of complex data. The problem with the current use of visualization in the scientific community, according to Fox and Hendler, is that when visualizations are actually included by scientists, they are often an end product of research used to simply illustrate the results and are inconsistently incorporated into the entire scientific process. Their visualizations are also static and cannot be easily updated or modified when new information arises.
And as scientists create more and more data with more powerful computing systems, their ability to develop useful visualizations of that data will become more time consuming and expensive with the traditional approaches.
I find this interest from scientists quite intriguing and mutual with the interest from other communities. I noted that Baba Brinkman included scientific data and visualizations as part of his performance of The Rap Guide to Evolution (Feb. 21, 2011 posting).
Recently, there was a local (Vancouver, Canada) theatrical performance that featured demographic data. Each individual is a visual, living, breathing representation of demographic data pulled from Vancouver’s most recent census. From the 2011 PUSH Festival web page for 100% Vancouver,
A Statistical Chain Reaction
One by one, 100 people enter the stage. These are not trained actors. These are everyday Vancouverites. The demographics of a city brought to life, with the stories and individuals that make up Vancouver 125 years after its official beginning. As questions are posed, the participants sort themselves according to opinions and political leanings, where they’re from, how they spend their time, car they drive, bus they take, peanut butter preference and so on. A living, breathing portrait of Vancouver emerges.
Each person represents 1% of the roughly 646,385 people residing in Vancouver. Casting starts with a single person. This first person has 24 hours to recruit the next person, who must then find the next, and so on. In just over three months, the full 100 are linked. Participants are chosen according to specific search criteria—gender, age, marital status, ethnicity, and neighbourhood in which they live—attempting to reflect the demographics of the last census.
100% Vancouver is based on an ongoing project of Berlin’s Rimini Protokoll, which has included 100% Berlin and 100% Vienna. With work like the interactive Best Before (2010 PuSh Festival), the company’s signature style draws on the perspectives of “experts in daily life” to create contemporary works where everyday people are the theatre’s real protagonists. (Note: They were last mentioned in my Feb. 1, 2010 posting [scroll down past the first few paragraphs].)
Theatre Replacement builds performances that speak to contemporary existence and investigate the events that fill our lives.
While the theatrical companies producing this show weren’t overtly interested in visualizing data, I find the approach quite appealing.