An introduction to data visualisation

Visualisation of US precipitation data – click for interactive version

Visualisation is a powerful method to promote understanding of data and research outputs. In the past, the impact of data visualisations has been blunted by the fact that they are often buried as ‘furniture’ within academic publications. However, this is rapidly changing.

New and innovative ways of presenting research data are emerging all the time. Ubiquitous web access, portable computing, virtual reality, and powerful new programming libraries are making it easier than ever for complex data to be understood by more and more people. Public funding for research is increasingly linked with public engagement, public impact, and the sharing of underlying data, all of which can be radically enhanced using modern data visualisation techniques.

The IT Services Research Support team aims to facilitate and promote data visualisation in a number of ways. The Interactive Data Network (IDN) seeks to enable researchers to build and share interactive visualisations using a variety of cloud-based visualisation tools, including D3.js, Plot.ly, Shiny and Tableau Public.

The use of cloud-based services can help to bridge the gap between publication, researcher and data repositories – enabling broader research impact and potential data-led collaborations. Making visualisations interactive transforms them from being simply narrative devices to exploratory tools that allow users to pose their own questions.

Screenshot from Cultures of Knowledge Project visualisation - click for live version

Screenshot from the IDN’s Cultures of Knowledge case study – click for live version

The IDN is developing a set of case studies to illustrate some of the possibilities. These include an interactive map, showing the correspondence network between German migrants in the 19th and 20th centuries, which accompanied a recent article in the online publication The Conversation.

On June 10, the IDN will host a one-day event on Data Visualisation and the Future of Academic Publishing, designed to bring together publishers, academics, journalists and technologists. The aim is to foster discussion and set new goals for collaboration and innovation.

Another Research Support team project, Visualising Research Data in 3D with Blender, has a narrower focus. Blender is a free software program which can be used to create high quality imagery and animation. However, data from the specialised tools researchers use is often not in a form suitable for immediate use in Blender and similar applications. The project’s aim is to design pipelines to import research data into Blender, allowing researchers to make full use of its capabilities.

SeeingDataRelated initiatives elsewhere in the University include the Migration Observatory’s participation in the Seeing Data project, which developed a topical case study on international migration to explore how visualisations of complex data are produced, received, and understood. This made use of focus groups to encourage participants to share what they liked or disliked, and learned or didn’t learn, from each visualisation.

The potential benefits of creative and insightful visualisation of research data are huge, and the Research Support team aims to help as many researchers as possible to reap them. If you are interesting in finding out more, or would like assistance with creating a visualisation of your own, please contact the team by emailing researchsupport@it.ox.ac.uk

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