Tag Archives: British Library

British Library’s Beautiful Science exhibit of data visualization leads to Vancouver, Canada’s Martin Krzywinski, scientist and data visualizer

One tends to think of data visualization as a new phenomenon but the practice dates back to the 17th century at least according to the British Library’s Beautiful Science exhibition opening today, Feb. 20, 2014 and extending to May 26, 2014. Rebekah Higgitt’s Feb. 20, 2014 posting for the Guardian’s Science blog network offers a preview (Note: Links have been removed),

Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight, which opens at the British Library tomorrow, is a small but thought-provoking display that looks at how scientific data has and can be visualised. Prompted by today’s interest in big data and infographics, it merges modern digital displays with historic texts and images.

The display items are well-chosen, and include some key examples of innovation in data collection and presentation. However, the science- rather than history-led interpretation of the 17th- to 19th-century texts is clear in the fact that their selection reflects trends and concerns of the present, rather than a concern to reveal those of the past. There is, likewise, an emphasis on progress toward ever better and more accurate approaches to data visualisation (although in a post at PLOS Blogs, Kieniewicz suggests that designers have recently stolen a march over scientists in the display of data).

The PLOS (Public Library of Science) blogger mentioned in previous excerpt is Johanna Kieniewicz and the Beautiful Science exhibition’s curator. In the Feb. 13, 2014 posting on her ‘At the Interface’ blog, where she discusses the exhibit she also makes it clear that this is a personal blog and is not associated with her employers (Note: A link has been removed),

When it comes to the visual representation of scientific information, in a scientific context, does aesthetic matter? In my day job at the British Library, I’ve spent the past year curating the upcoming Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Ideas exhibition. This experience has given me a phenomenal opportunity to think about the way we communicate and discover things in science. And, I think there’s a strong case to be made for beautiful science.

The visual representation of data is a fundamental part of what it means to be a scientist today. Whether a single data point plotted on a graph or a whole genome sequence, data visualisation helps us to examine, interpret, and contextualise information in a way that numbers and statistics often do not. Moreover, at a time when we are expected to process ever-increasing volumes of information, visualisations are often more readily digestible than some of the more ‘traditional’ alternatives; as the increased prominence of colourful ‘data viz’ work in the pages of our newspapers, websites, and in-flight magazines would attest.

You do have to be in London, UK to attend this show however the British Library’s Feb. 19, 2014 press release does offer more information which might satisfy curiosity about the show and associated events, as well as, some images (Note: Links have been removed),

In an age of rapidly advancing technologies Beautiful Science, opening tomorrow in The Folio Society Gallery at the British Library, shows that the challenge of presenting big data in innovative ways is not a new one. From 17th century illustrated diagrams to contemporary interactive visualisations, the exhibition explores how advances in science alongside changes in technology have allowed us to visually interpret masses of information.

Beautiful Science, sponsored by Winton Capital Management, explores the work of scientists and statisticians through the ages using the Library’s own vast science collections together with new and exciting technology, focusing on three key themes – public health, weather and evolution.

From an early visual representation of a hierarchically ordered universe in Robert Fludd’s ‘Great Chain of Being’ (1617) and Florence Nightingale’s seminal ‘rose diagram’ (1858), which showed that significantly more Crimean War deaths were caused by poor hospital conditions than battlefield wounds, to a contemporary moving infographic of ocean currents from NASA, this exhibition shows how visualising data has changed the way we see, interpret and understand the world around us.

Dr Johanna Kieniewicz, lead curator of Beautiful Science, says: “The British Library is home to the nation’s science collection and we’re thrilled to be opening up our fantastic collections in the Library’s first science exhibition. As big data is becoming a topic of such huge interest, we particularly wanted to show the important connections between the past and the present. Data that is centuries old from collections like ours is now being used to inform cutting edge science. We’re also delighted to include video interviews with leading experts, Dame Sally Davies, UK Chief Medical Officer, Sir Nigel Shadbolt, chairman and co-founder of the Open Data Institute, David McCandless, data-journalist and designer, and David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge University.”

Following the success of last year’s Inspiring Science season, the exhibition is accompanied by a range of events including Festival of the Spoken Nerd: I Chart the Library, Seeing is Believing: Picturing the Nation’s Health with Sally Davies and David Spiegelhalter, Knowledge is Beautiful with David McCandless and a Family Discovery Day.

Now for some of the images in the show. This first one is Florence Nightingale’s Rose,

In her seminal ‘rose diagram’, Florence Nightingale demonstrated that far more soldiers died from preventable epidemic diseases (blue) than from wounds inflicted on the battlefield (red) or other causes (black) during the Crimean War (1853-56). Courtesy British Library

In her seminal ‘rose diagram’, Florence Nightingale demonstrated that far more soldiers died from preventable epidemic diseases (blue) than from wounds inflicted on the battlefield (red) or other causes (black) during the Crimean War (1853-56). Courtesy British Library

Next, there’s a contemporary reworking of Florence Nightingale’s Rose,

Cambridge University statistician David Spiegelhalter and his colleagues have taken the data from Florence Nightingale’s ‘rose diagram’ and animated the ‘rose’, as well as picturing the data as a bar chart and icon diagram. This shows not only the lasting relevance of Nightingale’s diagram as a visual icon, but also demonstrates how data can be pictured in different ways, to different effect. Courtesy British Library

Cambridge University statistician David Spiegelhalter and his colleagues have taken the data from Florence Nightingale’s ‘rose diagram’ and animated the ‘rose’, as well as picturing the data as a bar chart and icon diagram. This shows not only the lasting relevance of Nightingale’s diagram as a visual icon, but also demonstrates how data can be pictured in different ways, to different effect. Courtesy British Library

This next image from the Beautiful Science show leads to Vancouver,

Specially commissioned for Beautiful Science, these striking ‘Circos’ diagrams picture the genetic similarities between humans and five other animals: chimpanzee, dog, opossum, platypus and chicken.  Courtesy British Library

Specially commissioned for Beautiful Science, these striking ‘Circos’ diagrams picture the genetic similarities between humans and five other animals: chimpanzee, dog, opossum, platypus and chicken. Courtesy British Library

This particular set of ‘Circos’ diagrams are also called the ‘Circles of Life’ and were created by Martin Krzywinski, a Vancouver-based scientist (mostly biosciences) and data visualizer. His blog features his data visualization work which is quite beautiful and, I imagine, is at least part of the reason for the worldwide interest in his work. Krzywinsk has contributed to a Nature (journal) group blog devoted to data visualization. The blog has since been retired but the July 30, 2013 posting provides a subject index to the group’s postings. Krzywinsk was also a featured speaker at a WIRED (magazine) Data | Life conference in New York City on Nov. 6, 2013.

 

 

British Library’s new iPad app

How do I love thee, British Library? Let me count the ways. (I know it’s a cheap move paraphrasing these lines from Elizabeth Barrett Browning but it’s a compromise since it can take me years to come up with the perfect poetic line by which time this news will be ancient history.)

The British Library has announced an iPad application (app) which will make over 60,000 19th century titles from their collection available through Apple’s iTunes store later this summer. At this point, there are approximately 1000 titles available in the app they are calling the 19th Century Historical Collection. Neal Ungerleider on the Fast Company website writes in his June 15, 2011 article,

The British Library is launching a new library-in-an-iPad application that gives tablet users access to tens of thousands of 19th-century books in their original form. The app, called the 19th Century Historical Collection, is taking a notably different tack to putting classic literature online than rivals such as the Kindle platform: Antiquarian books viewed through the British Library application will come in their original form–complete with illustrations, typefaces, pull-out maps and even the occasional paper wear.

This project follows from the British Library’s previous mobile app project, Treasures. Here’s a video about that one,

Getting back to the most recent project the 19th Century Historical Collection (from the British Library June 7, 2011 news release),

The British Library 19th Century Historical Collection App forms a treasure trove of classics and lesser known titles in fields ranging from travel writing and natural history to fiction and philosophy. The app represents the latest landmark in the British Library’s progress towards its long-term vision of making more of its historic collections available to many more users through innovative technology. [emphasis mine]

I’m happy to see that the staff at the British Library remain open to ideas and experimentation. As I noted in my July 29, 2010 posting (Love letter to the British Library) about copyright, I’ve been having an affair with the British Library since 2000. Here’s an excerpt from that posting which relates directly to these latest initiatives,

Dame Lynne Brindley, the Chief Executive Officer for the British Library had this to say in her introduction to the [British Library's] paper [Driving UK Research — Is copyright a help or a hindrance?],

There is a supreme irony that just as technology is allowing greater access to books and other creative works than ever before for education and research, new restrictions threaten to lock away digital content in a way we would never countenance for printed material.

Let’s not wake up in five years’ time and realise we have unwittingly lost a fundamental building block for innovation, education and research in the UK. Who is protecting the public interest in the digital world? We need to redefine copyright in the digital age and find a balance to benefit creators, educators, researchers, the creative industries – and the knowledge economy. (p. 3)

In this case, the action matches what’s been said. Bravo!

ETA June 21, 2011: The British Library has recently made a deal with Google to digitize 250,000 texts. All of the books are in the public domain. You can read more about the project/deal in Kit Eaton’s June 20, 2011 article for Fast Company, Pulp, Non-Fiction: On The British Library’s Book-Digitizing Deal With Google. From the article,

Google’s got several other high-profile deals with other libraries, but the British Library deal is significant because the BL is the second biggest library in the world, after the Library of Congress (if you’re counting books, rather than periodicals). There are 14 million books among 150 million texts in a variety of formats and three million are added every year–because the BL is a legal deposit library, so it gets a copy of all books produced in the U.K. and Ireland, including many books from overseas that are published in Britain.

The Library’s chief executive Dame Lynne Brindley has commented on the new deal, highlighting the original mission of the Library to make knowledge accessible to everyone–the Google deal is “building on this proud tradition.” Since anyone with a browser can now access the material for free from anywhere in the world, the deal sets an important precedent that may be expanded in the future.

Making 60,000 texts immediately readable on your iPad is one thing, and adding another 250,000 is another. The British Library is sending a big signal out about historic texts, and it could subtly change how you think about books. For one thing, student’s essays are going to be peppered with even more esoteric quotes from obscure publications as they ill-advisedly Google their way through writing term papers. It also boosts Google’s standing in the “free” books stakes compared to competitors like Amazon, and it does imply that in the future even more of the 150 million texts in the British Library may make it online.

Interesting development!

 

Love letter to the British Library

It happened in 2000 and I had no hint of it when I stepped through the doors of the British Library on the last afternoon of my trip to London. A fellow traveler had raved about one of the exhibits (I think it was called 1000 years of English literature) the day before my visit, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered.

It awoke in me a passion I don’t often share but was roused again when I came across an article on Techdirt (by way of Michael Geist) about the British Library’s latest publication on copyright. From Mike Masnick’s article,

The paper brings together 13 different researchers to all share their opinions, and the general consensus appears to be that copyright today is a serious problem in need of reform (and, no, the “Digital Economy Act” in the UK didn’t help at all). Basically, the key points are that copyright shouldn’t be allowed to get in the way of research activities.

You can download a copy of the paper, Driving UK Research — Is copyright a help or a hindrance?, from Techdirt.

Dame Lynne Brindley, the Chief Executive Officer for the British Library had this to say in her introduction to the paper,

There is a supreme irony that just as technology is allowing greater access to books and other creative works than ever before for education and research, new restrictions threaten to lock away digital content in a way we would never countenance for printed material.

Let’s not wake up in five years’ time and realise we have unwittingly lost a fundamental building block for innovation, education and research in the UK. Who is protecting the public interest in the digital world? We need to redefine copyright in the digital age and find a balance to benefit creators, educators, researchers, the creative industries – and the knowledge economy. (p. 3)

Thirteen researchers and writers discuss how copyright has an impact on all kinds of research (music, theatre, law, the sciences, etc.) and some of the problems associated with using laws designed for print  in a digital world. Dr. Dave Roberts and Vince Smith of the Natural History Museum offer their take on the problems with copyright and scientists along with suggestions for improvements,

For working scientists copyright is at best an irritation and at worst an obstruction. The process of science requires the sharing of results so that both the individual researcher and their institution build reputation and the esteem of their peers through recognition of the quality of their work. Traditionally this has been done by publication on paper and has been characterised as a workflow where scientists, the majority of whom these days are publicly funded, create manuscripts that they submit to publishers, who get other scientists to evaluate and comment on the work (peer review). The publisher sells the result back to the scientists. In the classic model, used to defend copyright, the money made by publishers is apportioned between the creator (author) and the publisher. In science, not only does the author not see any money from their work, but the publisher demands an exclusive right to that income in perpetuity.

For scientific publishing:

• We urgently need to separate cases where there is substantial loss of income to a content creator though content dissemination (e.g. a professional musician) from those that make no income from dissemination and rely on this as part of their scholarly activities (e.g. a professional scientist). A positive start could be made by removing copyright restrictions on material older than, say, two years from its original publication date.

• Orphan works should be placed in the public domain.

• Making copies for strictly archival purposes should not be subject to copyright control. Libraries in particular should be able to preserve digital copies in perpetuity, which technologically means regularly making copies.

I’m not sure I buy their musician example as someone who suffers from a loss of income as a consequence of content dissemination when many musicians (including some famous ones) are giving away downloads of their music and exploring new business models but the suggestions themselves seem quite reasonable.

Thank you British Library for reminding me how much I love you. (blowing kisses from Canada’s West Coast).

Dem bones at McGill; innovation from the Canadian business community?; the archiving frontier; linking and copyright

I have a number of bits today amongst them, Canadian nanotechnology, Canadian business innovation, digital archiving, and copyrights and linking.

A Quebec biotech company, Enobia Pharma is working with Dr. Marc McKee on treatments for genetic bone diseases. From the news item on Nanowerk,

The field is known as biomineralization and it involves cutting-edge, nanotech investigation into the proteins, enzymes and other molecules that control the coupling of mineral ions (calcium and phosphate) to form nano-crystals within the bone structure. The treatment, enzyme replacement therapy to treat hypophosphatasia, is currently undergoing clinical testing in several countries including Canada. Hypophosphatasia is a rare and severe disorder resulting in poor bone mineralization. In infants, symptoms include respiratory insufficiency, failure to thrive and rickets.

This research in biomineralization (coupling of mineral ions to form nano-crystals) could lead to better treatments for other conditions such as cardiovascular diseases, arthritis, and kidney stones.

McKee’s research is being funded in part by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research  From the Nanowerk news item,

McKee’s research program is a concrete example of how university researchers are working with private sector partners as an integral part of Canada’s innovative knowledge economy, and the positive outcomes their collaborations can offer.

I don’t think that businesses partnering with academic institutions in research collaborations is precisely what they mean when they talk about business innovation (research and development). From a March 2, 2010 article about innovation by Preston Manning in the Globe & Mail,

Government competition policy and support for science, technology, and innovation (STI) can complement business leadership on the innovation front, but it is not a substitute for such leadership. Action to increase innovation in the economy is first and foremost a business responsibility.

Manning goes on to describe what he’s done on this matter and asks for suggestions on how to encourage Canadian business to be more innovative. (Thanks to Pasco Phronesis for pointing me to Manning’s article.) I guess the problem is that what we’ve been doing has worked well enough and so there’s no great incentive to change.

I’ve been on an archiving kick lately and so here’s some more. The British Library recently (Feb.25.10) announced public access to their UK Web Archive, a project where they have been saving online materials. From the news release,

British Library Chief Executive, Dame Lynne Brindley said:

“Since 2004 the British Library has led the UK Web Archive in its mission to archive a record of the major cultural and social issues being discussed online. Throughout the project the Library has worked directly with copyright holders to capture and preserve over 6,000 carefully selected websites, helping to avoid the creation of a ‘digital black hole’ in the nation’s memory.

“Limited by the existing legal position, at the current rate it will be feasible to collect just 1% of all free UK websites by 2011. We hope the current DCMS consultation will enact the 2003 Legal Deposit Libraries Act and extend the provision of legal deposit through regulationto cover freely available UK websites, providingregular snapshots ofthe free UK web domain for the benefit of future research.”

Mike Masnick at Techdirt notes (here) that the British Library has to get permission (the legal position Dame Brindley refers to) to archive these materials and this would seem to be an instance where ‘fair use’ should be made to apply.

On the subject of losing data, I read an article by Mike Roberts for the Vancouver Province, January 22, 2006, p. B5 (digital copy here) that posed this question, What if the world lost its memory? It was essentially an interview with Luciana Duranti (chair of the Master of Archival Studies programme and professor at the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies at the University of British Columbia, Canada) where she commented about the memories we had already lost. From the article,

Alas, she says, every day something else is irretrievably lost.

The research records of the U.S. Marines for the past 25 years? Gone.

East German land-survey records vital to the reunification of Germany? Toast.

A piece of digital interactive music recorded by Canadian composer Keith Hamel just eight years ago?

“Inaccessible, over, finito,” says Duranti, educated in her native Italy and a UBC prof since 1987.

Duranti, director of InterPARES (International Research on Permanent Authentic Records in Electronic Systems), an international cyber-preservation project comprising 20 countries and 60 global archivists, says original documentation is a thing of the past.

I was shocked by how much ‘important’ information had been lost and I assume still is. (Getting back to the UK Web Archives, if they can only save 1% of the UK’s online material then a lot has got to be missing.)

For anyone curious about InterPARES, I got my link for the Roberts article from this page on the InterPARES 1 website.

Back to Techdirt and Mike Masnick who has educated me as to a practice I had noted but not realized is ‘the way things are done amongst journalists’. If you spend enough time on the web, you’ll notice stories that make their way to newspapers without any acknowledgment of  their web or writerly origins and I’m not talking about news releases which are designed for immediate placement in the media or rewritten/reworked before placement. From the post on Techdirt,

We recently wrote about how the NY Post was caught taking a blogger’s story and rewriting it for itself — noting the hypocrisy of a News Corp. newspaper copying from someone else, after Rupert Murdoch and his top execs have been going around decrying various news aggregators (and Google especially) for “stealing” from News Corp. newspapers. It’s even more ridiculous when you think about it — because the “stealing” that Rupert is upset about is Google linking to the original story — a step that his NY Post writer couldn’t even be bothered to do.

Of course, as a few people pointed out in the comments, this sort of “re-reporting” is quite common in the traditional news business. You see it all the time in newspapers, magazines and broadcast TV. They take a story that was found somewhere else and just “re-report” it, so that they have their own version of it.

That’s right, it’s ‘re-reporting’ without attributions or links. Masnick’s post (he’s bringing in Felix Salmon’s comments) attributes this to a ‘print’ mentality where reporters are accustomed to claiming first place and see acknowledgments and links as failure while ‘digital natives’ acknowledge and link regularly since they view these as signs of respect. I’m not going to disagree but I would like to point out that citing sources is pretty standard for academics or anyone trained in that field. I imagine most reporters have one university or college degree, surely they learned the importance of citing one’s sources. So does training as a journalist erode that understanding?

And, getting back to this morning’s archival subtheme, at the end of Clark Hoyt’s (blogger for NY Times) commentary about the plagiarism he had this to say,

Finally, The Times owes readers a full accounting. I asked [Philip] Corbett [standards editor] for the examples of Kouwe’s plagiarism and suggested that editors’ notes be appended to those articles on the Web site and in The Times’s electronic archives. Corbett would not provide the examples and said the paper was not inclined to flag them, partly because there were some clear-cut cases and others that were less clear. “Where do you draw the line?” he asked.

I’d draw it at those he regards as clear. To do otherwise is to leave a corrupted record within the archives of The Times. It is not the way to close the case.

One last thing, Heather Haley is one of the guests appearing tonight in Rock Against Prisons.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

7:00pm – 11:55pm

Little Mountain Gallery

195 east 26th Ave [Vancouver, Canada]

More details from my previous announcement about this event here.

French want more nanotech public debates; British science oral history project

After last month’s post about disturbances (causing at least one cancellation) taking place during a series of nanotechnology public debates in France, it was a surprise to find that at least one French group wants to continue the ‘discussion’. This last series of  events has been completed with a report due in April 2010. According to a news item on Chemical Watch, France Nature Environnement (FNE) is urging more public debates. From Chemical Watch,

The French public debate on nanotechnologies that began in September ended this week. An official summary of the 17 debates will be published at the end of April, but environmental organisation France Nature Environnement (FNE) says in its conclusions that further discussion is needed to decide where the technology is useful for human advancement and where its use is unacceptable.

You can look at the FNE news item here but it is in French and the site doesn’t seem hospitable to Firefox,  so do try another browser.

Meanwhile, the Brits are embarking on an oral history of British science. From the news item on BBC News,

The British Library has begun a project to create a vast, online oral history and archive of British science.

The three-year project will see 200 British scientists interviewed and their recollections recorded for the audio library.

“We have long been painfully aware that there’s a marked absence of significant recordings of scientists,” said Dr Rob Perks, curator of oral history at the British Library.

For instance, said Dr Perks, in the current sound archives there are only two recordings of Ernest Rutherford, none of computer pioneer Alan Turing, hovercraft inventor Christopher Cockerell or AV Hill, a physiologist and Nobel laureate.

A study carried out prior to the project being started found that in the last ten years, 30 leading British scientists including 9 Nobel winners have died leaving little or no archive of their work.

I’m glad to hear that this oral history is being preserved although I do wonder about the recording formats. One of the problems with archiving materials is maintaining to access them afterwards.

Coincidentally, one of the local Vancouver papers (The Georgia Straight) has an article by Rhiannon Coppin (in the Feb. 25 – March 4, 2010 issue) about the City of Vancouver archives and their attempts at digital archiving. From the article,

Every day, Vancouver’s city archivist and director of records and archives runs a rescue operation on our past. Les Mobbs might send out film reels from the ’30s for repair, or he could receive a donation of early-20th-century photographic negatives that need to be catalogued, scanned, and put into cold storage.

Lately, Mobbs has been putting equal consideration into how to preserve our future. More and more of the city’s legal and cultural record is being created in a digital format; in other words, it’s “born digital”, he told the Georgia Straight.

The pitfall in digital archiving is that we’re poor caretakers of electronic file formats. In 50 or 100 years, we’ll know we’ve won the preservation game if we can open and read a computer document created today. But even in 2010, we’re missing out on 20-year-old WordStar files stuck on five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disks. Ironically, it may be safer to keep a paper copy of a document than to store the original computer file.

“We’ve been dealing with paper for 2,000 years,” Mobbs said. “We have a lot of experience with what paper is, what it looks like, and how it’s preserved.”

While acid decay, mould, brittleness, and water damage are formidable but vanquishable foes, machine decay, format obsolescence, and file integrity degradation are virtually unconquerable. The short lifetime of many licensed software formats and the quick deaths of so much hardware (remember LaserDisc?) have posed a particular challenge for archivists like Mobbs.

“How do we preserve material that is, for all intents and purposes, essentially transitory?” he asked.

While this discussion might seem irrelevant on a mostly science-oriented blog, the ‘memristor’ story highlights why information about the past is so important. In 2008, R. Stanley Williams (HP Labs) and his colleagues published two papers, the first proving the existence of a fourth member, a memristor, of electrical engineering’s ‘holy trinity’ of the resistor, capacitor, and inductor and the second paper where they established engineering control over the memristor. Williams  and his team both solved a problem they were experiencing in the lab and made engineering history, in part  by reviewing engineering theories dating back at least 30 years. You can read my post about it here.

Imagine if those theories had been locked into formats that were no longer accessible. That’s one of the major reasons for preserving the past, it can yield important information.

In the interest of full disclosure, I once worked for the City of Vancouver archives.

British Library Annual Report and nanotechnology

The 2007/8 annual report from the British Library features a brief story about a nanotechnology company.  (I love the British Library as I find their displays quite wonderful.) Their annual report presents stories in text and video (with some interesting effects). When you get to the home page there’s a an outline of a woman speaking about her experience researching Canadian pioneers in the library preparatory to writing her novel. The nanotechnology story isn’t quite that interesting to me (a gaggle of academics using the library research facilities while they develop their nanotech company does illustrate the range of materials available as does the head lice company story). They’ve found a very engaging way to present material that can be deadly dull. Bravo!