I’ve written in the past (and here) about how difficult I’ve found it to get my hands on a book about visualisation that’s a real page turner – this must be a problem that greater minds than I have struggled with for at least a century or two, but I find the writing about design I see curiously unsatisfying. Like travel writing, I’d rather be doing the thing than reading about it. Which is as fine a way as any to learn, but a bit solipsistic.
In this guest post by anthropologist Charlotte Johnson, she discusses her perspectives on the PICKs project (published earlier this month in Sustainability: The Journal of Record and available open source).
When asked to ‘map all the research related to cities and resources at UCL’ my first thought was ‘eek’, and not just due to the overwhelming size of the task (UCL has a research body of over 4000 people). But from a critical perspective mapping can be an act of epistemic violence – what gets put on the map and why, who gets to decide on the parameters? For me, a map is an object fraught with imperial overtones not to mention the hubris in attempting to comprehensively represent an ever-shifting landscape.
The MRes group visualisation projects are complete, and as predicted, rather impressive. This year the theme was “The Active City”, and students took this and ran with it in a variety of ways, whether viewing the activity of mobility-impaired users of the London Underground network, exploring the Thames as a driver of development and cultural activity, or looking at the cultural life of the city through museums and blue plaques.
I’m apparently now in the Sustainability field (which is rather exciting): the first paper with my name on it was published in Sustainability: The Journal of Record this month. Anthropologist Charlotte Johnson is first author (I’m the second, and final, author), so that makes me partly sustainable, I suppose. It’s called PICKS: Exploring Post-Disciplinary Knowledge in a University’s Urban Sustainability Research Landscape but it’s really much friendlier than the title suggests. And it’s open access, so you can go ahead and read it (nb: this page plays more nicely with Zotero bookmarks).
June is an exciting time in CASA, as our MRes students will be turning in their group visualisation projects, which never fail to dazzle and impress. Our students learn from Andy Hudson-Smith’s 3D skills, Adam Dennett’s GIS know-how, and my Processing datavis chops (such as they are), so the resulting projects are like a giant datavis mecha with all of our powers combined, and the students’ own experience and imagination spicing up the mix (and frequently going well beyond what we’ve taught them).
We won’t see their final projects until next week, but I already have some glimpses of the work they’ve done in response to the various small briefs* they had throughout the term. I thought I would show a few of these off in anticipation of the main event…
After my wander up the Greenway last year, it was exciting to finally see Crossness pumping station in action this weekend. Bazalgette’s sewers were/are gravity-fed, so by the time south London’s sewage reaches the Thames at distant Crossness, it’s some thirty feet underground, and needed to be pumped up to surface level before it could be discharged into the Thames. Fear not, those plucky Victorians waited until the tide was going out; in the meantime, it was stored in a giant sewage reservoir onsite.
While the lake of sewage has been replaced by a field of solar panels*, much of the original building and mechanisms remain, restored by volunteers over a number of years. And yesterday was steaming day, so we got to see one of four giant and colourful beam engines in action.
The building itself is home to some beautiful Victorian ironwork. From April next year, they will be open much more regularly, but until then, there is a list of open days on their website.
*I’ll leave you to insert your preferred glib comparison, or more nuanced insight about bountiful resources and centralised infrastructure, here
I’m excited to be chairing a session on Data Visualisation for Public Engagement at the British Science Association’s annual Science Communication conference, which is in sunny Guildford this year. It’s not until May, but when you keen scicommers, academics, science journalists, students, museums people and scicurious freelancers sign up, you’ll need to tell the nice people that you want to come to our session and not one of the equally awesome other ones, so I thought I’d get in ahead of time.
Data visualisation (aka “datavis”) is in the news constantly. The British Library are currently running an exhibition of scientific visualisation, books about visualisation and infographics sell by the truckload, and broadsheets and tabloids alike are running data journalism and visualisation blogs. What does this mean for public engagement with research, and science in particular? I’ve put together this session because I want to understand these issues. I’m a lecturer in spatial analysis and visualisation – which means I teach students (mainly from an architecture or geography background) techniques for visualising “human” data (like demographics, transport, twitter data, research funding data) and models (networks, agent-based, cellular automata, neural nets). I think datavis is already having a massive impact in social sciences, but I’m a physicist at heart, and I am really curious about how this all works in the natural sciences.
To this end, I’ve put together what I think is a really exciting panel. Damien George is the most focussed on communicating research outputs from natural science – not only that, but his efforts to map the research landscape in physics articulates what research is for both publics and practitioners. Andrew Steele has done great work visualising government science spending with his Scienceogram, and continues to find ways to communicate and challenge science policy via datavis. Artemis Skarlartidou has worked with communities in mapping potential sites for nuclear waste disposal, and has particular expertise around building trust through visualisation. Together, I want to explore what I think are key questions about datavis – what can it articulate that other ways of communicating cannot? How can it be used for meaningful engagement? Who can use these tools? What opportunities are we missing? And what are the limits of these techniques?
But of course, it won’t just be the panel doing all the talking. Each panellist will discuss datavis in general, and visualisations they’ve worked on, for about ten minutes each, leaving a generous 45 minutes for a decent discussion – technical, ethical, practical, or otherwise. Because datavis is fairly current, I’m expecting a lot of interesting views in the room – but we don’t require attendees to be experts, so even if you don’t know the right end of a visualisation from the wrong one, come along to question, debate and see what the fuss is about.
The session runs from 3.30 on Thursday May 1st - I hope to see you there.
—If you’re a newcomer, I recently wrote a post recommending some introductory books, as well as one which has my thoughts about which languages you might consider using if you want to get into the nitty-gritty programming side of things.