A bit about Data Visualisation

A few years ago I came across the term “Data Visualisation” which I supposed was something very complex that turned data into those wonderful pictures of aeroplane flight paths in many colours on a map of the world.
Related image

Or, I marvelled at huge pictures of digital art, like the one below, Courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy.

ORNL EVEREST visualization

I longed to be able to learn to do something just as bold and beautiful, and started finding out about the process. I didn’t realise that although these impressive images are data visualisation, there is a much simpler and far more prosaic method of visualisation data.

Quite simply it is charts and graphs – things that I have known how to do since secondary school and actually taught to quite young children in my days of being an infant teacher. This may be simpler than the digital art, but it still takes data (the height of children, for example) and communicates the information of the tallest or shortest person easily to anyone who cannot see the children standing together.

chart

The example above is done in Google Sheets – other tools are available. In my teaching days it would have been made more interesting by doing a pictograph – little pictures of people standing in a line, something like this one:

pictograph
Historically, information and data that has been communicated through a picture, or visualisation, has changed the world. For example, Florence Nightingale was actually a very astute statistician who gathered data about army deaths and their causes. She compiled the diagram below to show how many of these deaths were preventable. I particularly like the detailed explanation of how to read the visualisation

Diagram of the causes of mortality in the army Wellcome L0041105

I also recently come across a rather wonderful visualisation of Napoleon’s March across Russia which is a very poignant visualisation of the human losses incurred at war. The thick beige line dwindles in size as soldiers die on the journey. The returning troops are shown by the black line which also gets thinner and thinner. In all around 410,000 men were lost. I believe that the visualisation demonstrates the enormity of that loss in a more powerful way that looking at the figures.

Minard's Map (vectorized)

Comparing these simpler pictures with the digital art that I showed at the beginning of this blog, I think that the simplicity tells the story and communicates the meaning of the data in a much better way. So there is really no need to use very complex algorithms or expensive data visualisation tools to produce a picture of your data. Google Sheets and Excel have the wherewithal to produce a clear chart or graph.

At this point, I have to give a plug to JUSP and the technical team behind the resource. They have produced visualisations of JUSP data using “Tableau” so that e-resource librarians can download them and use them for analysis or presentations. So far, these visualisations are proving popular with JUSP users.  We at Evidence Base will be monitoring the use of these visualisations over the forthcoming weeks and will find out how useful and powerful it will be to put journal usage data into a visual form.

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CILIP Conference, Day two – Reaching people.

The theme that I have picked out from the second day of the conference is the way that libraries can reach everyone. This is specially true of public libraries. Neil MacInnes, Strategic Lead-Libraries, Galleries & Culture, Manchester City Council spoke of the work that Manchester Libraries are doing to bring information and literature to the people of Manchester. This has required quite a lot of revision of the service but they appear to have succeeded in getting more people using the libraries and perhaps significantly, more people using the items that have been held in archives for many decades.

For example, the geographic locations of the branch libraries were compared with the current centres of habitation, and it was realised that some libraries were not where the people are. This meant moving some of the services, some be co-located with other services. The Central Library, which was built in 1938, had become unloved, and so it was completely refurbished. Such effort brought in many more visitors. The overall remit is not merely getting people IN to libraries, but is also getting books OUT to people. They had a Shakespeare folio in the archives which had been seen by very few researchers. Now it has its own taxi and security staff and is taken to branch libraries where students and school children can see it. It has been viewed more times in the past few years than it has been for decades.

Work like this is so important to show that libraries are not dead archives for the intellectual only. Showing a precious object can inspire and stimulate a sense of history as well as showing off treasures to be found in ordinary libraries. Manchester is managing to shout out about their achievements. After Neil’s talk a delegate said to me “Oh, the Central Library from my city does many of these things too.” but that other city is being quiet about their achievement.  It is important these days to be Loud Librarians, to be one of the strident voices clamouring for attention and funding, and to demonstrate the impact on society and learning that libraries have.

And that brings me to the second workshop that I attended, “Loud Librarians” by Selena Killick (Open University) and Frankie Wilson (Bodleian Library, Oxford). And they are. Loud, that is. This workshop was very well attended, so many of us wanting to be loud!! Selena and Frankie had us working (always a good thing for a workshop), and considering:

  • Who were our stakeholders
  • What were the main outcomes they wanted
  • How we could record how we addressed those outcomes – not just numbers

It was a very practical session and I will certainly use their techniques, so simple, logical and effective.  They told us how we could demonstrate the ways that libraries are reaching out to people.

I then attended a series of seminars on the themes of Information Literacy and Literacy and Learning and the presentation that stood out was Dr Konstantina Martzoukou’s (Robert Gordon University) talk about trying to reach “Syrian New Scots” – how to give essential information to Syrian refugees in Scotland. The project was working with groups to find out what information they wanted and considered ways of giving them the information. The plight of the refugees was made very clear by the inclusion of a poignant video showing the city of Homs, before the current conflict and the devastation the conflict has caused.

Jason Vit of the Reading Agency outlined the current work that they are doing to engage people with reading. This included working with bus companies to put up posters on busses, and having “pop up” bookshops in certain places. They are developing “Hubs”, certain towns, where they are concentrating efforts to increase the literacy of disadvantaged communities. The Reading Agency take a down to earth and innovative approach to reaching people, wherever they are.

So, this conference consolidated my belief that libraries do get information out to people and that there are other organisations that we could work with to do that. We also have to realise that we are the vehicle by which the ordinary members of society can have objective, authoritative information, to balance the subtle persuasion of  internet giants or the noise of press and politicians. It means that we have to be very Loud Librarians shout about our services and successes instead of being quietly complacent.