Seeing Data: Researching visualisation literacy

I want to share some information about a really interesting research project I’m fortunate to be working on with a small research team from the Institute of Communication Studies at the University of Leeds and The Migration Observatory. The study is titled ‘Seeing Data’ and is funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC). Having commenced in January of this year the project runs through to March 2015.

I’ve briefly mentioned it over the past few weeks but with the project’s website and blog having been launched in the past couple of days it is a good time to profile it on here because the focus of the study should be of interest to anyone visiting this site.


So much of the discussion about data visualisation is dominated by new projects, new techniques and tools – and understandably so, in many ways we are still in the golden period of experimentation and discovery.

The aim of ‘Seeing Data’ is to understand how people make sense of data visualisations, specifically ‘big data’ visualisations relating to subjects of great depth and rich breadth. Through learning about the ways in which people engage with data visualisations we intend to provide some key resources for the general public, to help them develop the skills they need to interact with visualisations, and also for visualisation designers/producers, to help them understand what matters to the people who view and engage with their visualisations.

One of the key strands of our research activity will be the running of focus groups where we will be conducting assessments about people’s experiences with an array of different visualisation work: different in format, function, tone and subject matter. We are thrilled to be collaborating with our partner studio – Clever Franke – who are helping us to create new visualisation assets for use in this process and beyond.

It is not a long-running, big-team, multi-million pound programme of work but we feel it will be an important stepping stone to learning more about this fascinating subject area. You can find more details about the project via our new website, which includes more information about the aims, intended outputs and how you can get involved in our research. You can follow updates about the project via Twitter (@seeing_data), Facebook and our blog where we aim to publish weekly articles about the study and the subject of visualisation literacy.

If you have any questions or contributions to make to the discussion about visualisation literacy, feel free to get in touch!

Data Stories podcast: Episode 37, teaching visualisation

As ever it was a privilege to be invited to take part in the latest episode 37 of the Data Stories podcast. I joined Enrico and Moritz alongside Scott Murray to discuss the challenges of learning and teaching data visualisation.


Many thanks again to Enrico and Moritz for inviting me on the show for a fifth time!

Tasty visualisations from the Barcelona Data Cuisine

Data Cuisine is an experimental workshop investigating the creative possibilities at the intersection between food and data: “exploring food as a medium for data expression”. Between 10th and 13th of June, Moritz Stefaner, a man who needs no introduction, along with Dr Susanne Jaschko and chef Sebastian Velilla ran the second edition of the workshop in Barcelona (the first was in Helsinki in 2012) part of the Big Bang Data exhibition at CCCB, and in coordination with Sónar.


The focus of the experiment is to research creative ways to represent local open data in through the inherent qualities of food like color, form, texture, smell, taste, nutrition, origin etc. It is a truly multi-sensory approach to encoding data, something that I’ve highlighted previously as been a really interesting branch of the visualisation field.

The workshop is a collaborative research experience, blurring the boundaries between teachers and participants, data and food. At its end, an local data menu is created and publicly tasted.




Moritz and Susanne have just finished writing up details and publishing photos of the dishes made during this Barcelona workshop. Probably a good idea to not visit the site with an empty stomach.

Visits: A visualisation tool for location histories and photos

Visits is a new visualisation tool by Alice Thudt, Sheelagh Carpendale and Dominikus Baur that lets you browse your location histories and explore your trips and travels. The tool is based on a research project from the University of Calgary. You can find the corresponding publication here: A. Thudt, D. Baur, S. Carpendale – Visits: A Spatiotemporal Visualization of Location Histories, EuroVis 2013.


Based on an innovative interactive map-timeline the visualisation elegantly comprises a main map element that shows the bigger-picture view of the places you have visited with a series of sequenced circular map snippets that encode when and how long you have stayed in each location. You also then have the option to upload photos from Flickr to supplement the map-timeline with a visual slideshow story of your journey that can be shared with friends and family – and even complete strangers, should you wish.

You can learn more about the project here and, of course, the authors are keen to invite anyone to create their own ‘visit’ story.

Guest post: Using Mode to re-engineer data visualisations

Occasionally I invite folks to contribute guest posts to profile their work, ideas or knowledge. This guest post comes from Benn Stancil from a startup called Mode who have created a really interesting tool that allows you to reverse engineer analysis/visualisations in order to potentially take them in new directions. The product was opened to the public yesterday, so you can check it out and a few examples of the visualisations that people have built with it.



Can we learn from and build on each other’s visualizations?

Like so many others, I’ve long been fascinated by learning from data–and as a result, been an avid consumer of data visualizations. The explosion of data in recent years has fueled a similar explosion of beautiful and insightful visualizations, created by everyone from industry leaders like the New York Times and Guardian to undiscovered brilliance hidden in obscure corners of the internet.

Even the best visualizations, however, rarely answer all of a viewer’s questions. We often want to understand how the data was collected, how it would look if considered from a different angle, what story it would tell if combined with other data, or how the visualization was built. In other words, great visualizations not only answer questions, but inspire more.

Unfortunately, it’s often difficult to document and share enough information to answer these follow-up questions. Creators carry the burden of sharing their data sources, their analysis that aggregated and combined data, their visualization code, and many other details. And piecing this information together after the fact is equally burdensome for consumers. The bit of knowledge someone new could add by remixing the analysis–or the bit they could learn by better understanding the original–often hits a dead-end, no matter how inspiring the visualization.

Introducing Mode

In part because of my own personal frustration, I recently cofounded a company, called Mode, aimed at providing solutions to these challenges. Mode’s mission is to connect data and the people who analyze and visualize it. We’ve built a web-based tool that executes analysis, displays results, and renders fully custom visualizations all in one place. By saving, versioning, and packaging the entire workflow together, anyone who discovers the analysis can immediately click through the results to see the underlying data, the analysis, and how the visualization was created. Right now, we’re focused on supporting SQL for analysis and web languages (HTML, CSS, and Javascript) for visualizations, though we’re planning to adding R- and Python-based tools soon.


The above is a screenshot of a finished visualization. You can see the query, visualization code, and previous versions by clicking on the Query, Presentation, and Run History tabs above the graphic.

By organizing all of this information together in a simple package, people can immediately understand and add to visualizations without having to rebuild the work themselves. We’ve made this possible in one click–simply click clone on the screen above, and you’ll be working with with same visualization published by the original author, exactly where they left off.

When a piece of work is cloned, the original author not only maintains credit, but also sees who cloned their work and what they’re doing with it. This allows the community to push an analysis forward, without ever losing sight of the creator and without the creator losing sight of how their work is evolving.

Others can then working with the analysis and visualization in their own workspaces. They can even add their own data–Mode allows multiple creators’ data to be combined in a single visualization. Because all of this work happens in the browser, Mode doesn’t require setting up a development environment or finding a place to host the visualization.

Here is a screenshot of the presentation editor, where you can add custom visualization code and preview it.


Finally, we want people to be able to easily share their work. All visualizations in Mode can be shared via URL, or can be embedded anywhere on the internet, just like a YouTube video. The embedded visualizations, like the one below, can be fully interactive, and link back to all of the data and work.

We Want Your Advice

Our approach to making data visualizations more accessible is largely influenced by our own experiences as data analysts. Surely others, who have had different experiences and objectives, face other challenges or have other ideas for solutions.

We’d love to hear what you think of our direction and how we can tailor it to your needs. What problems have you had when collaborating on data visualizations? What are your biggest struggles, and how would you solve them? If you’d like to check out our approach, Mode is free to use and you can sign up here.

We’re looking forward to see what great work people can build with Mode – and perhaps more importantly, what we can learn from each other. The world is producing fascinating data at an unprecedented pace, on subjects ranging from air quality in Chicago, to taxi traffic in Seattle, to the tattoo trends in the NBA. Great technologies for producing visualizations, like D3, Raphaël, and R, are constantly improving. And we have many giants in the data visualization community to look up to. At Mode, our hope is to help all of us stand on their shoulders.

Beginning the journey towards book number two

A quick announcement to the broader visitorship out there, having briefly tweeted about it last week I am thrilled to have received approval to start work on my second book, which will be published by SAGE (one of the “world’s leading independent academic and professional publisher”, I’ll have you know).

I’m not going to share any details on the title or contents just yet but, as with all my endeavours, it will be aimed at covering in detail the practical craft of data visualisation (it won’t be a glossy coffee-table gallery of different works, for example) with a realistic target completion date being the latter part of 2015.

One of the main things that excites me about this project is that the publishers have stated their commitment to explore some great innovations in the relationship between print and digital form: not just in replicating a text digitally but about creating a digital companion to the printed content. I think that is needed in discussing this subject.

The second main thing that excites me is that the book WILL be printed in colour. Obvious, right? Well, not always, sadly…

My experiences from writing the first book were that it is a painful slog, fraught with mental blocks, anxieties about added-value, fears of mis-quoting or mis-referencing ideas, frustrations at trying to secure permissions for image usage etc. I think this quote astutely sums up the prospect:


Whilst I was satisfied with the content of my first book (not so much it’s form), I feel I have moved on considerably with so much more to say than I had the chance to share back then. I’m confident that, with the professional support SAGE will unquestionably provide me, this second title will truly be the book I have wanted to produce. I’ll keep you posted on progress…

Best of the visualisation web… April 2014

At the end of each month I pull together a collection of links to some of the most relevant, interesting or thought-provoking web content I’ve come across during the previous month. Here’s the latest collection from April 2014.


Includes static and interactive visualisation examples, infographics and galleries/collections of relevant imagery.

Social Progress Index | ‘The Social Progress Index offers a rich framework for measuring the multiple dimensions of social progress, benchmarking success, and catalyzing greater human wellbeing.’

Enigma Labs | Nice animated/interactive project showing ‘US Daily Temperature Anomalies 1964-2013′

National Geographic | A range of videographics explaining various matters relating to food around the world

Stanford Kay | Infographic showing the global carbon ‘foot’print. Labelling might be an issue but I like the attempted metaphor.

Twitter | From Brilliant Ads, a very clever ambient/visualisation/ad concept about the consequences of smoking

Washington Post | ‘Where every person lives and works in Manhattan’

Visualizing | Nice curated gallery by Manuel Lima looking at a range of projects that visualise urban patterns

Economist | A new form of interactive static visualisation: representing the odds of being murdered in 5 countries via the chance of a dart hitting the same display. We clearly now must see more dart vis, this needs to be a thing.

Jonathan Hull | Jonathan uses the periodic table framework to good effect, visualising the abundance of elements in the universe, ocean, earth etc.

Washington Post | ‘The depth of the problem’ possibly my first liked tower graphic as it perfectly captures the ludicrous depth of the search for the Malaysian airliner’s black box

Visual Loop | ‘This is Visual Journalism: Special edition dedicated to the awarded infographics at Malofiej 22′

Bloomberg | ‘How Americans Die’ – the latest interactive story from the Bloomberg Visual team

Mapsbynik | Mapping the census blocks where nobody lives in the US

Sensory Maps | Kate launches her latest ‘Smellmap’ – this time for Amsterdam

das Referenz | Typically elegant and briliant work from Raureif to create a free reader app for Wikipedia. Also check out the in-depth design process article link.

The Upshot | ‘A Map of Baseball Nation’ – Facebook fans by zip code.

Fathom | ‘A look at the history of Miles Davis’ career and collaborations according to his (400) recording sessions as documented by the Jazz Discography Project.’

Washington Post | Visual article with some wonderful interactive/animated devices detailing the ‘intensive care’ required for the damaged dome of the US Capitol.

New York Times | ‘How Minorities Have Fared in States With Affirmative Action Bans’

WYNC | ‘Tracking Tickets for Dangerous Driving, by Precinct’

SCMP | Really nice poster quality piece that depicts the biggest players through the history of the Oscars

National Geographic | ‘Nine Cities That Love Their Trees’

Washington Post | ‘Looming: A delayed wallop of pollen’. Nice Gantt-chart style graphic


The emphasis on these items is that they are less about visualisation images and are more article-focused, so includes discussion, discourse, interviews and videos

FiveThirtyEight | Interesting exploration of the ongoing exclusion of women in Hollywood, with analysis of the Bechdel test

The Guardian | ‘Why Google Maps gets Africa wrong’

Visual Loop | ’90 dataviz Tumblr blogs to follow: The ultimate list of Tumblr blogs about data visualization, cartography and data journalism’

Smashrun | Smashrun is an “analytical platform for runners” and contains some terrific looking visualisation work. Browse through the blog to see some of the analysis (the link provided here).

The Why Axis | We’ve had a good chunk of articles and discourse about storytelling, Bryan collates them in one place here…

Eager Eyes | …but here are the ones specifically published during April, starting with Robert’s piece ‘Story: a definition’

Neoformix | Here’s Jeff Clark’s piece ‘A Short Reflection on Storytelling in Data Visualization’

The Functional Art | Alberto also wades in with ‘Annotation, narrative, and storytelling in infographics and visualization’

Fell in Love with Data | Enrico might have been having a bad day at work :) – ‘My (stupid) fear we may, one day, become irrelevant’

Telling Information | Nice short summary from Lulu about her take aways from Malofiej 22…

Earth Observatory | …and here’s Rob Simmon’s more in depth write up from his experience as a judge at Malofiej 22

Chartio | An Interview with Scott Murray, Code Artist… D3 Hero and other such monikers

Stanford | Paper from EuroVis 2013: ‘Selecting Semantically-Resonant Colors for Data Visualization’. Surfacing again now mainly due to…

HBR | This article by Sharon Lin and Jeff Heer: ‘The Right Colours Make Data Easier to Read’

Junk Charts | ‘When to use the start-at-zero rule’

Medium | ‘(Re)defining multimedia journalism: New storytelling forms inspire us’

WonkViz | Less about the subject or analysis, more about the **edit** at the bottom for the importance of misleading interpretations

JND | Article from Don Norman: ‘Predicting too early is as bad as not predicting at all. In making predictions, getting the timing right is as important as getting the idea right.’

Eager Eyes | ‘Review: Manuel Lima, The Book of Trees’

Source | ‘Meet Bloomberg’s dataview: Iterating toward a reusable animated chart flow’

Storytelling With Data | Cole discusses the difference between exploratory and explanatory analysis

nGrain | Really smart demonstration of solutions for ‘looking beyond two dimensions’

Source | ‘Introducing Fourscore: Speedy sentiment-grid making from WNYC + Al Jazeera America’

Learning & Development

These links cover presentations, tutorials, learning opportunities, case-studies, how-tos etc.

Graphitti | Detailed process narrative about Tom MacInnes attempts at ‘his’ first interactive map.

Dashing 3js | Comprehensive set of tutorials and screencasts to help you learn how to make data visualisations with D3.js

The Information Lab | Quick tutorial for ‘Advanced Map Visualisation in Tableau using Alteryx’

Dataplusscience | The first Sankey diagram I’ve seen attempted in Tableau, with a set of notes explaining how it was done

Scribd | Golan Levin’s presentation from Malofiej 22 – ‘Information Arts, Critical Making’

Stat Hunting | A very good, honest and constructive reflection from Steve Fenn about his experiences of taking and responding to (quite brutal) criticism of one of his pieces of work.

Data Remixed | ‘Dimension Line Charts: a (slight) variation on arrow charts’ – nice article from Ben Jones about the issue of (mis)interpreting arrowheads

Lena Groeger | Slides from Lena terrific talk at OpenVis 2014 about the ‘wee things’ in visualisation design

FastCo Labs | ‘The Five Best Libraries For Building Data Visualizations’ with contributions from Moritz Stefaner, Mr D3 Hero, Jan Willem Tulp, Benjamin Wiederkehr and Erik Cunningham

Vimeo | Think I might have shared before but worth another go if so, ‘Webstock ’13: Mike Monteiro – How Designers Destroyed the World’

Peltier Tech Blog | Nice excel tutorial from Jon for ‘Axis Labels That Don’t Block Plotted Data’

PJIM | Always a good read: Volume VI, Issue 2 of the ‘Parson Journal for Information Mapping’

The Why Axis | ‘Today we have better access to health information than ever before but this means little without greater understanding. Visualizing Health is a weapon in the fight to create a culture of health.’

Subject News

Includes announcements within the field, brand new sites, new (to me) sites, new books and generally interesting developments.

Mapbox | Launching Mapbox outdoors – ‘A beautiful new map designed for outdoor adventures.’

Density Design | Updated version of RAW

Visci | Newly discovered site, the impressive ‘Visual Science’: – “a media production service, providing graphical and animation solutions to the industrial, academic and educational sectors” – check out the showreel

TargetProcess | Newly discovered tool for Visual Management: ‘Software to plan and track any process, including Scrum, Kanban and your own.’

Amazon | New book: ‘The Best American Infographics 2014′ edited by Gareth Cook (Disclaimer: I was a member of the ‘brains trust’)

Information is Beautiful Awards | Revealing the winners of the ‘Human Cost’ visualisation challenge

Software Studies Initiative | Congratulations to Lev Manovich and his team for securing one of the very rare Twitter Data grants, here’s the abstract for their proposed work


Any other items that may or may not be directly linked to data visualisation but might have a data/technology focus or just seem worthy of sharing

BBC News | ‘Bristol artist creates hand-drawn maps of the city’

FastCo Design | ‘A Top Nike Designer Rebrands Game Of Thrones’

Offbeat | Unusual data source but might interest one or two ‘World Football Statue Database’

YouTube | Archive of the great Numberphile videos – ‘videos about numbers’

Vox | ‘Amtrak’s insane train boarding rules, explained’

Washington Post | Oh dear, America, looks like you’ve been taking the dart from above into your ‘guessing where Ukraine is’

The Guardian | ‘What would football managers see if they wore Google Glass?’

Emily Garfield Art | ‘Emily Garfield creates intricate maps of imaginary places that explore the origins of cities and the function of maps themselves.’

Interface Vision | A HUGE collection of examples/images of Visual Programming Languages

Books about related but non-data visualisation subjects

Over the past couple of days I’ve been asking people in my corner of Twitter for suggestions for classic book titles from subject areas that are not data visualisation but that do hold many interesting related ideas, theories and concepts. Things that we can draw from and apply to our understanding of data visualisation.

This is a list of top 3′s based on responses on Twitter. I know that there is a good chance some purists or practitioners from these fields will likely sit their cringing at some of the choices, if that’s the case please help improve and refine via the comments section below!


The Universal Journalist, by David Randall


The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect, by Bill Kovach, Tom Rosenstiel


Inside Reporting: A Practical Guide to the Craft of Journalism, by Tim Harrower


News/publication design

The Newspaper Designer’s Handbook, by Tim Harrower


The Best of News Design 34th Edition, by Society for News Design (Contributor)


The Modern Magazine: Visual Journalism in the Digital Age, byJeremy Leslie



How to Read Buildings: A Crash Course in Architecture, by Carol Davidson Cragoe


Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan, by Rem Koolhaas


Precedents in Architecture: Analytic Diagrams, Formative Ideas, and Partis, by Roger H. Clark, Michael Pause


Game Design

What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy: Revised and Updated Edition, by James Paul Gee


The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses, by Jesse Schell


Level Up!: The Guide to Great Video Game Design, by Scott Rogers


Graphic Design

Graphic Design: A Concise History, by Richard Hollis


100 Ideas that Changed Graphic Design, by Steven Heller


Graphic Design, by Milton Glaser


Advertising Design

Creative Advertising: An Introduction, by Miriam Sorrentino


The Advertising Concept Book: Think Now, Design Later, by Pete Barry


Ogilvy on Advertising, by David Ogilvy


Product Design

The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald Norman


Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, by Nir Eyal, Ryan Hoover


Less and More: The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams, by Klaus Klemp, Keiko Ueki-Polet



How Maps Work: Representation, Visualization, and Design, by Alan M. MacEachren


You are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination, by Katharine Harmon


Cartography: Thematic Map Design, by Borden D Dent, Jeff Torguson, Thomas W. Hodler



How About never – is Never Good for You?: My Life in Cartoons, by Bob Mankoff


The Naked Cartoonist: Exposing Your Creativity, Uncover Your Imagination, Bare Your Wit, by Robert Mankoff


Framed Ink: Drawing and Composition for Visual Storytellers, by Jeffrey Katzenberg, Marcos Mateu-Mestre



Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, by Scott McCloud


Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels, by Scott McCloud


Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative, by Will Eisner


Exhibition ‘Chicago: City of big data’

I’m currently in Chicago for a couple of days to deliver my public workshop. Thanks to the recommendation of Tom Schenk Jr. I had chance to quickly see a really nice free exhibition at the Chicago Architecture Foundation called ‘Chicago: City of big data‘.

Through interactive displays, recreated sections of Chicago and views into your own personal data, Chicago: City of Big Data reveals the potential of urban data and offers a new perspective on Chicago and cities everywhere.


The exhibition aims to reveal how Chicago has been influenced by the concept of data as a 21st century design material through a range of displays:

Architects, planners, engineers and citizens increasingly use data to understand urban issues and spark design innovation. This explosion of digital information, known as “Big Data,” encompasses everything from data collected by environmental sensors to messages on social media. This new exhibition reveals the potential of urban data and offers a new perspective on Chicago and cities everywhere. Visitors can explore interactive displays, recreated sections of the city and get unique views into your own personal data.

The ‘Data Trail’ is an interactive touch screen installation that tracks and presents analysis on how individuals contribute to the volume of data generated every day.

The ‘Chicago Dashboard‘, created by IBM’s City Forward initiative provides real-time updates on a variety of indicators and aspects of big city life


On the back wall of the exhibition is a huge display showing a colour-coded categorisation of the age of the city, something we’ve seen a lot of across the field in the last 18 months.




The main exhibit is the ‘Chicago Model’, apparently the only accurate and up-to-date depiction of Chicago’s downtown.



Sadly not displayed whilst I was there, the model is enhanced with a light installation that projects different coloured lights onto the model to visualise different sets of data. The installation was designed and developed buy DCBolt Productions.


This next image is taken from a really good in-depth write-up on Venture Beat.


The final item of note was an exhibit about the work of Sophonisba Breckinridge, Edith Abbott and Florence Kelley. They pioneered a technique using colour-coded maps to help better understand and demonstrate the poor housing and overcrowded conditions in parts of the city.




Transmogrifiers: On-the-fly graphic transformations

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Miguel Nacenta, University of St Andrews, was one of the people behind the development of the FatFonts technique. Whilst chatting with Miguel he showed me a short video of another tool he has co-worked on developing called Transmogrifiers. I remember seeing the website a few months ago but I’d not truly appreciated what it was about until seeing the video: it is amazing stuff.

I asked Miguel to articulate what Transmogrifiers is about as I’m sure the technique and capability it offers will resonate with a lot of people out there.

A Transmogrifier is a tool to transform the presentation layer of existing information visualisations and maps in a flexible, quick way. The main idea is that it should be trivial to transform any graphic from one shape into another shape. For example, you might want to transform twisted routes on a map to straight lines (to compare their length visually), or a bar chart into a radial graph (to present in an orientation-independent graph). Transmogrifiers allow you to do this through a multi-touch or cursor-based interface without having to program anything, and with any image that you can find in the web or in your hard-drive.


Due to its flexibility, Transmogrifiers is a useful tool to prototype and test variations of existing visualisations. For example, you can very quickly simulate how your own visualisation could look with a Perspective-Wall applied to it, or with Magnification lenses of different sorts and types. Among the existing visualisation techniques that we have been able to replicate with Transmogrifiers in a matter of minutes, and without having to code are Perspective Wall, Melange, Mag Lenses, and Spirals.


You can try out the (Windows) software by downloading and installing transmog.exe and reading this simple manual describing the basics of operating it. There is plenty more information and sample galleries through the website.

Additionally, a more detailed account of the work can be found in the research paper: “Transmogrification: casual manipulation of visualizations”. In ‘Proceedings of the 26th annual ACM symposium on User interface software and technology. ACM, pages 97-106, 2013′. Authored by John Brosz, Miguel A. Nacenta, Richard Pusch, Sheelagh Carpendale and Christophe Hurter.