That giant balloon isn’t really a ton (or even a tonne) of carbon dioxide. It’s full of air. But it represents a ton of the greenhouse gas in a way that you can see and touch. The inflatable, made a few years ago by our friends at EcoMotion, is a recent example of one important way to make key quantities intelligible.
That’s not a thing that happens naturally. Few handy phrases are less accurate than saying that “the facts speak for themselves”. The growth of data visualisation underlines that. We have to decide what we want the data to tell people - or what questions we’d like them to ask. And we should try as many ways of doing that as possible.
That means looking beyond the displays on screen, or graphics in print, that are most commonly used for data visualisation. There are a host of ways of representing key quantities that take material form. People call this not data visualisation but “physicalisation”. It’s an ugly new word for a realm of sometimes elegant invention.
As the invaluable catalogue at the data physicalisation wiki shows, it relates to an ancient tradition. http://dataphys.org/list/
That catalogue begins with clay tokens used in Mesopotamia 7000 years ago. But the most striking examples tend to come from later eras that were grappling with data and statistics.
At the start of the 20th century Charles Davenport, for instance, depicted statistical distributions by “displaying” the variation of some character or trait of objects or people by using the very items in question.
Easy for seashells.
And a little more trouble for people.
More common, not surprisingly, are less direct representations, such as the celebrated substitution of rice grains for people in Stan’s Cafe’s artwork depicting the global population. One of our own physicalisations Precious ozone: counting on ozone (2015) used rice to visualise the composition of CO2 and ozone in the atmosphere.
Outside the art world, the late Hans Rosling - aided by his son Ola - developed a whole set of physical props to help him tell stories about global development. Ikea boxes, pebbles, toy building sets, fruit juice and snowballs all featured in his talks and videos at various times. Here’s a nice example, relying entirely on Lego bricks.
The possibilities for using physicalisation in new ways - as simple as this, or more complex - are endless. They call on skills a bit different from those that produce digital depictions of data. Like a sculptor, you have to investigate the materials to make sure they will do what you want and, perhaps, be reproducible in a live display or survive interaction with lots of people who want to handle them. That would point to uses beyond art display or demonstration. And there are exciting speculations about ways this sort of work would exploit computerised data handling - abolishing the boundary between the physical and the digital to create new, hybrid displays that have some of the affordances of both.
There are already artists working with “data sculpture”, as in this rather wonderful depiction of EEG data by Refik Anadol, who has made many other striking exhibits.
Looking ahead, a paper by authors who include the compilers of the data physicalisation catalogue proposes a challenging research prospectus for data physicalisation, including what it can do and how one could demonstrate its benefits. It also envisages some exciting future possibilities that may be technologically realisable soon. For instance, imagine a science museum where a visitor:
“walks into a room which describes the Earth’s changes in climate. She picks up stones that physicalize the change of temperatures on Earth backwards in time. She can get a good sense of the differences between ice ages and hotter periods – but when she gets to the volcanic beginnings and the stones quickly heat up, she drops them. At the hurricane diorama, miniature hurricanes of the past 50 years move over a map of North America covered in dense fog, with only the eyes of the storms allowing a peak inside. The visitor places her hands over two of the eyes, and the differences in pressure give her the sensation of the intensity of the hurricanes at their peak. She reaches into the eye of the stronger hurricane and feels a strong drag on her hand when it crosses the eyewall. She can easily judge how devastating it was.”
That kind of experience is a way off, but there are already data physicalisations that exemplify such approaches. Sociologist Deborah Lupton cites Michael Whitelaw’s “weather bracelet” that allowed residents of Canberra, Australia, to wear a representation of local meteorological data, and the Melbourne-based “sweat atoms” project that materialised personal data via 3D printing. She describes how the artefacts made there included,
“A 3D-graph of heart rate data, a flower shape where the length and width of the petals represent heart rate duration and intensity, a frog shape that changed in size according to the amount of physical activity carried out that day, a die representing the six zones of heart beat data and a ring displaying the number of hours the person was active. Participants in this project could hold or display their artefacts and compare the size of each one with others.”
The research team involved found that people developed a stronger emotional connection with their data when it was turned into these personalised objects, “showing them to others and arranging them as decorative items in their homes or on their desks at work “.
These examples are intriguing, and leave the thought that we have only scratched the surface of data physicalisation so far (the physical metaphor seems appropriate). Real World Visuals is keen to try out new realisations of these ideas alongside our more regular digital projects. One experimental technology we’re involved with deserves another post of its own, which we’ll put up soon. Meanwhile, if you have ever wondered how to make your data more tangible, even tactile, do get in touch to discuss the possibilities.
Jansen, Y. et al.. (2015) Opportunities and Challenges for Data Physicalization. Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI) NY, United States, 15 April, 2015. Available online: http://chi2015.acm.org/
Lupton, D. (2017) Feeling your data: Touch and making sense of personal digital data. New Media and Society. 19 (10), pp. 1599-1614. Available online: https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444817717515