Sunflower Harvest Map

Show me the data…

Data visualisation Guardian Masterclass Photograph: Tobias Sturt for the Guardian

I have become a little bit obsessed with data. Why have I have allowed myself to get carried away with data? Simple… there are powerful stories hidden in everything from sales figures, to patient stats to campus maps. And, there are ways to display data visually that our pattern hungry brains, find it easier to decipher what’s going on or at least start to ask questions… ‘what the hell happened there?‘ From a citizen science point of view, I’ve also been wondering how it can be made easier for citizens to get more involved in the highs and lows of scientific data analysis – the bit where you get to make sense of it all – and either plunge into the depths of depression or launch into the eureka highs of new discovery and uncharted territory.


people thanked for contributing to the Electron computer
thanks to…

At the same time, I am wondering about different ways to visualise success during my Wellcome fellowship – because many conversations get started and some go places, others quite naturally won’t, plus, some conversations are groundbreaking, they propel you into a new way of working, give you confidence to keep going, provide you with insights that you’ve never had access to before. Last week I went into a meeting and after babbling on about what I’d been upto for the past eight years, the person i was meeting with paused and then said, very calmly ‘I believe you will change the world‘. I remember my head reeling for a moment – i didn’t realise it, but this was clearly what i’d needed to hear out loud for a very long time. That scene will play out in my head a lot – its very powerful – for someone to figure out what you need to hear and to say it back to you and, of course, for you to believe it.

Visualising scientific collaboration

But not all moments will stand out as clearly as this. I am a very visual thinker – as a kid i would memorise exactly everything on several note books – sentences, circuit diagrams, foot notes… my ability to recognise patterns is pretty good – not as good as it used to be, but there is certainly an ability that could be worked with here. For future reference, it would be nice to leave a trail of breadcrumbs to navigate my way out of the woods or to recognise when I have been somewhere before and stop and think – okay – time to change direction or just time to move on, or keep going along this path. Its about creating visual associations for the feeling of what happened. Having written this i worry a little – because – it reminds me of people who photograph everything on their iphones without every looking at the photographs again. And i wonder whether taking photographs is a way to remain distant, separated from my feelings and maybe its best to just experience things, feelings and all?! Within academia, for example, there is a natural way to track collaborations – and that is to visualise networks of collaborations on academic papers.

Thomson Reuters: visualizing the collaborative nature of academic reports

That’s a very traditional way to track academic impact – looking at journal citations – but I won’t necessarily be writing lots of papers (a few i am sure) – there will be other, tangible and intangible ways in which the fellowship will make a difference to me and others that I encounter.

A mighty one, from my perspective is this idea of ‘step-change in my career’ – how is the fellowship helping me to shift career or practice in a way that will be recognisable when I look back. It would be good to look back and say – well that, there, was a ground breaking moment. This CV from graphic designer Paulo Estriga worth a look here…

Paulo Estriga career CV

The challenge, for me, has been to break away from old routines, to rest more, to switch off, to start drawing again. In a sense, to disengage the mind, to stare out of the window on train journeys – this quietness in the mind – has meant there have been sudden insights that seemingly come from nowhere, breaking through the silence and going…. ‘hey what about this?!


With what i am trying to achieve in terms of social innovation – i think its more difficult – but potentially a simple visualisation could help keep track of potential pathways to making change happen. Where there are defined outputs, like in the music industry, where people make and sell songs, there are simple ways to map influences using social network analysis. Another way might be to look at adoption of change within a network, again using social network analysis. And then i also found this paper, which explores how to visualise invisible networks as part of collaborative arts practice.

Do you see what i see?

Back to the hardcore… data. Its not just my brain that likes patterns, but all of our brains. Seeing patterns in a data visualisation can provide a faster way to generate insights. Last week I went on a basic data visualisation course, as part of the Guardian Masterclasses and was delightfully introduced in more detail to data visualisation gurus, Tufte and McCandless who have slightly different takes on the approach to data visualisation.

The course tutors, Tobias Sturt and Adam Frost from the Guardian’s Digital Agency threw us into the deep end, exploring data spreadsheets to look for stories to tell. My logical side wanted to throw the data (from baby names to shopping stats) to the data machine but my story head could see the value in looking for stories in the data ourselves. One of the things that they emphasised was the need for collaboration – find your data peeps and your visualisation team.


Fortunately in addition to doing a course i have had the almighty pleasure of learning from some very clever and humble peeps through a research pilot project called Everyday Growing Cultures, led by Dr Farida Vis. The project explores what happens when two communities (opendata and growing) come together to find places to grow food. I was involved in telling a story in a more traditional way about the project, by making a film about it. Our datasets were made by hand by local residents over soup, a walk and a map in neighbourhoods of Manchester (with the Kindling Trust) and Sheffield (with Grow Sheffield) working with Open Data Manchester.

I think there is a lot more to be said for citizen-led approaches to data and data visualisations and the social value that comes from creating datasets collaboratively out in the open air. Something to bear in mind when i approach the next idea for an open data project involving Campus maps!

A Data show and tell from Everyday Growing Cultures is coming up this weekend at Hulme Garden Centre, Manchester.

Related resources:

PS this blog post is dedicated to a very smart (and humble) Lancaster Uni Highwire student, Gerasimos Balis who will do amazing things for social innovation once he gets his hands on citizen-led approaches to data visualisation!


  1. Brilliant post. Really enjoyed the TED Talk. Tks for sharing. I bought the New Scientist this week and really enjoyed some of the articles.

  2. Great post, which has stimulated some creative thoughts of my own. I’ve recently found myself in a role I didn’t expect to be in – generating business leads, whereas my background is as a training consultant and facilitator. In the past I’ve actively avoided data, as i thought it was for accountants and ‘grey’ people (judgemental I know), not for creative people like me. However, in my new role I’ve come to love data, it’s helped me to demonstrate what’s working so I influence others and to successfully evolve a team from nothing (me part time and temporary) to a team of 8 people working full time within 12 months – exciting! I’ve also found that my ability to see patterns in processes and represent this visually is valuable, because I’ve been able to take what seemed chaos, or an unknown that was changing and evolving and present it back to others in a way that makes sense to them. Then between us we’ve been able to identify and plug the gaps which weren’t obvious before. My methods so far have been fairly traditional; tables, flow charts etc., with the odd visual thrown in, but this has stimulated me to think more broadly about how I present in future. Particularly the relativity of data to other data. The challenges I have previously faced are people saying things like ‘why don’t you do it like this, rather than like that?’ I’ve then had to justify my choices based on my own experience and understanding, which feels instinctive, but I expect it’s backed up by data, which influenced those choices which felt instinctive, but I bet were informed, if I’d looked for it. Thanks for a good dose of thought stimulation!

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