Joining the Dots Data Visualisation Symposium 2017

Joining the Dots – The Art and Science of Data Visualisation came about as the brainchild of Fiona Tweedie – a business analyst and data scientist who has worked in open knowledge, open data and digital humanities for several years, after completing her PhD in humanities at the University of Sydney. At Pycon AU, Fiona identified that most of the talks on data visualisation had strong representation from STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – but poorer representation from the humanities. Held at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, part of the broader University of Melbourne research precinct, #jtdwehi sought to address that by providing the opportunity to cross-pollinate multiple disciplines – and by all accounts it was a roaring success.

There were several excellent and engaging presentations over the course of the day, and my personal highlights are covered below.

Keynote – Professor Deb Verhoeven

Deb Verhoeven is incredibly respected in digital humanities for her creative take on visualisation and sonification – and not least of all for her untiring efforts to improve gender representation and diversity in the digital humanities  – for more on this, check out her famous ‘Where are the women?’ speech at DH2015:

https://vimeo.com/144863312[/embed]

Her incisive presentation covered broad ground. In particular, her exposé of “gender offenders” in Australian cinema – men who do not work with women, and choose to work exclusively with other men – denying women opportunities in the industry – was one of the most impactful data visualisations I’ve ever seen.

This is what the patriarchy looks like! – Professor Deb Verhoeven, speaking about data visualising of gender representation in  Australian cinema

Using a technique called social network analysis, Verhoeven’s team were able to show the gender of project members and how they clustered. Words don’t do it justice.

https://twitter.com/datakid23/status/898399563559587840

You can read more about the project via this article on The Conversation.

Another thought-provoking element of Verhoeven’s keynote was the work her research team had done on sonofication, as part of The Ultimate Gig Guide project. Walking us through the project, Verhoeven explained how the team had gathered data on the spread of bands across Melbourne via gig records. To add an extra degree of difficulty, many of these records were not digitised, and the data had to be gathered manually (another argument for digitalisation projects – it makes accessing and using data so much easier). The team then sonofied the data, resulting in a sequence of notes representing the frequency of gigs and their location as distance from Melbourne CBD. To add additional interest, a backing track was added, and the data was transposed into Cmaj scale. A meta gig – a gig about a gig!

Mind much blown.

You can read more about Deb Verhoeven’s academic work.

“Visualising the Australian Transport Network” by Xavier Ho, CSIRO

Xavier, an interactive data visualisation specialist with CSIRO, presented on TraNSIT – the Transport Network Strategic Investment Tool. This tool is designed to help identify and implement efficiencies in agribusiness supply chains by mapping the logistics and transport networks of different modes of transport – road, rail, air and sea. This work was amazing – not just because the data needed to be sourced from so many different repositories – another argument for open data  – but because of the direct impact data visualisation could have on planning and strategy.

Xavier was a seasoned presenter, with an engaging style – an excellent speaker.

“Ungodly cocktail – visualising three editions of Raynal’s “Histoire”” by Geoff Hinchcliffe, Australian National University

I cannot honestly say that French literature is something which excites me, but Geoff Hinchcliffe’s excellent presentation brought this project – which sought to visualise the differences between editions of Raynal’s Histoire – to life. Using the ‘ungodly cocktail’ of several data visualisation tools, combined with an iterative design and development process (instead of the usual tiered and discrete ‘front end’ and ‘back end’ approach), the changes between versions were mapped and visualised, providing a narrative to explore the influence of collaborator (in writing), Diderot.

What struck me about Hinchcliffe’s approach was the remarkable work that had gone into making something so esoteric and complex so accessible and simple – the true power of data visualisation.

You can follow Hinchcliffe as @gravitron on Twitter.

Further thoughts

Throughout the day, I came to a number of conclusions:

  • There are a small number of ‘tried and true’ tools for data visualisation specialists – among them d3.js and R. Processing did not seem to have found the same traction in the datavis community, likely because its mature implementation is still Java-based, while the Javascript – and therefore more web accessible and interactive implementation – is not as mature. There are several Python libraries for visualisation, and Python continues to ascend in popularity across not just the sciences but increasingly the humanities – and is firmly established as a programming language of first choice. Colour choices remain important, guided by tools like Color Brewer. Typography choices remain geared to the minimal and the sans-serif, indicating a need to have the visualisation speak for itself.
  • Interactivity is not a necessary part of every visualisation – with some visualisations such as Hinchcliffe’s not having a high degree of interactivity.
  • The interplay between design and development is tightly coupled – as seen with presenters having both back-end and front-end and process ’round tripping’ skills – data visualisation combines design, coding and statistical skills in equal measure and the more highly sought after practitioners will be able to work ‘full stack’.

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