In contrast to traditional forms of publishing, visualisation is the process of using graphics, colours, interactivity and other visuals to present information that would normally be unknown or ‘invisible’. (Data Art, 2014) For instance, the Sydney Trains map is a visualisation of Sydney which viewers often use to extract information when using Sydney’s train system. Without this visualisation, commuters would be quite confused when riding the train as they would not have access to visible information about the relative distance between certain suburbs.
When someone tells me the suburb they are from, I often visualise this map in my mind as it gives me a clear idea of the area which they are from and their distance from my home. It rarely occurs to me, however, that the train map is merely a visualisation of Sydney rather than an accurate representation of the the city. In fact, the reality is that the railway lines are not ever in a straight formation as shown in the Sydney Trains map. The map visualises Sydney in a simplified way for viewers and commuters to easily understand how the public transport system operates. Clearly, it would be too confusing if the map was an accurate scaled representation of what Sydney looked like as each line would be inconsistent due to the complex reality of Sydney’s railway network.
Unlike the Sydney Trains map, Google has come up with a different, perhaps more accurate, visualisation of Sydney using satellite technology and other software. Although its appearance greatly contrasts with the Sydney Trains map, both share the same purpose to visualise an aerial view of Sydney which had once been invisible in the past. Both visualisations aim to extend knowledge to the public about Sydney as a whole by presenting information about Sydney’s transport network in an understandable format.
Google also took one step further with its map visualisation when it decided to launch its Flu Vaccine Finder in 2012. This project aimed to educate the public by providing a live, interactive map with red markings to highlight where vaccinations can be found. In the past, this information would have been “invisible” as citizens did not have access to an interactive map which could show their relative distance to a vaccination centre.
Another example of an interactive visualisation is Brightpoint Consulting’s 2013 US Federal Budget. This visualisation effectively reveals the major areas of spending by the US government and the relationships between education and defence expenditure through the use of a tree diagram and a number of different colours. (Infosthetics, 2014) These colours help categorise each area of expenditure which allows viewers to understand the complex budget. However, there have been some shortcomings in visualising all of the information from the budget due to the large amount of information available. As shown in the image below, when I tried to view expenditure regarding the Department of Defense Military, a pop-up appeared stating that there were “too many departments” to view at once.
So can all of this cause a problem? Possibly yes. Often, we can be completely taken away by our own “archive fever” as we begin to overlook certain information and instead, take simple visualisations as the ‘truth’. It is important that we have a critical eye when analysing the data presented in visualisations. For instance, the Sydney Trains map, by no means, reflects the true distances between Sydney suburbs but it is highly likely that most commuters (such as myself) would believe so.
While it can be argued that the rise of visualisation has improved one’s ability to clearly present ‘invisible’ information to viewers, it has also increased the possibility of creating an information overload. Indeed, viewers can be easily overwhelmed because of the large amount of information presented to them through a visualisation, thus causing them to overlook certain important points. (Emicen, 2013)
Data-art.net, (2014). DataArt – Learning Resources. [online] Available at: http://data-art.net/resources/what_is_vis.php [Accessed 2 Oct. 2014].
Emcien, (2013). The Risks and Limitations of Visualization | Emcien Blog. [online] Available at: http://emcien.com/the-risks-and-limitations-of-visualization/ [Accessed 2 Oct. 2014].
Flushot.healthmap.org, (2014). HealthMap Vaccine Finder. [online] Available at: http://flushot.healthmap.org/ [Accessed 2 Oct. 2014].
Google Maps, (2014). Google Maps. [online] Available at: https://www.google.com.au/maps/preview [Accessed 2 Oct. 2014].
Infosthetics.com, (2014). Visualizing Publicly Available US Government Data Online – information aesthetics. [online] Available at: http://infosthetics.com/archives/2014/09/visualizing_publicly_available_us_government_data_online.html [Accessed 2 Oct. 2014].
Sydneytrains.info, (2014). Welcome to Sydney Trains. [online] Available at: http://www.sydneytrains.info/ [Accessed 2 Oct. 2014].