Data Visualisation

Here at Jisc infoNet we’re always striving to improve our data visualisation design.  It’s something that very much came to the forefront of our consciousness a couple of years ago.   We received feedback on the quality of the data visualisations we had been using to report on the annual Information Legislation and Management Survey and realised that we needed to reconsider and update our approach and make improvements.  My colleague Teresa Tocewicz blogged about the experience and the steps taken to improve things, and we’ve just published the results of the 2012 Survey – complete with newer, shinier, and hopefully more useful, data visualisations.  On a related note, we will shortly be revamping our Business Intelligence infoKit to accommodate the experiences of 11 Jisc-funded projects, many of which addressed various aspects of visualisation.  We are also actively considering creating a Flickr resource of examples of visualisation to go alongside this and will be encouraging submissions from the sector to add to it – so watch this space!

Last week I was lucky enough to attend a half day session on Data Visualisation that was a continuation of an event called Dashboarding for Peak University Performance held at East Midlands Conference Centre at the University of Nottingham.  The session was led by Andy Kirk, a Data Visualisation Architect.

Andy led participants through an entertaining and engaging session that was crammed full of interesting examples of good practice in data visualisation design.  There was also some discussion around, and examples of, not so good practice too.

Participants were provided with a fair amount of useful food for thought and some great tips on using data visualisation.  The 5 main tips featured were:


  1. The real craft behind data visualisation design is being able to rationalise choices for the given context
  2. A perfect solution never exists
  3. Having a strategy allows you to fail faster and recover quickly
    • keep notes of what you’re doing and how you’re doing it – to refer back
    • sketch your ideas, get them down on paper
  4. Try to ignore the voice in your head…
    • Embrace early ideas and sparks of creativity but always maintain an open mind
  5. Know when to stop
    • “Overload, clutter, and confusion are not attributes of information, they are failures of design”.  Edward Tufte

There is a wide range of sources of advice and information available on the subject; many of which were touched on during the session.

Useful links

Slideshare collection of Andy Kirk of Visualising Data’s presentations on the subject.
Visualisation Tools and Resources recommended by Andy Kirk

Visualisation websites

Some interesting examples of data visualisation – Running the Numbers II: Portraits of global mass culture by Chris Jordan.  This is a fascinating example of something that at first looks like something very familiar (a painting by Van Gogh) but actually when you look closer (click on it)  it’s something completely different… (it actually ‘Depicts 50,000 cigarette lighters, equal to the estimated number of pieces of floating plastic in every square mile in the world’s oceans’). – Wind map – very visual image of wind patterns in US by Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg – OECD Better Life Index – by Moritz Stefaner

Recommended Reading around the subject:

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information’ by Edward Tufte
Beautiful Visualization’ by Noah Iliinsky & Julie Steele
The Functional Art’ by Alberto Cairo
Now You See It’ by Stephen Few
Visualize This’ by Nathan Yau
Data Visualization: a successful design process’ by Andy Kirk