Oh, data, you’re so beautiful!

I had been seeing a lot of positive media coverage about a new exhibit at the British Library, ‘Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight’. The exhibit provides a historical tour of how scientists and statisticians have been using graphics to improve the communication of data since the 17th Century. So, last week, I thought it only right that some of the team, the would-be pioneers of visual data storytelling across UK Government, if you like, schlepped over to take a look.

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Ahead of our visit I made contact with its lead curators, Dr Johanna Kieniewicz and Nora McGregor, and we were kindly offered a guided tour of the three main themes of the exhibit: weather, health and genetics. Upon arrival, we met with Dr Allan Sudlow and talked briefly about our own foray into the world of visually communicating statistics and about how timely this exhibition was, given our pursuit of trying to effectively tell a story through graphics and wanting to achieve far more than simply beautifying data.

We started our tour with the weather section and it was fascinating to see how early cartographers and captains spent time aboard ships plotting ocean currents and weather systems, utilising their scientific skill and creating what, in themselves, are works of art. Even more impressive is that their measurements were so accurate that even today the data can be used to predict meteorological patterns. The evolution of this data over time is incredible to see too; there are so many similarities in how data is still depicted today – the NASA animation, ‘Perpetual Ocean’, is particularly stunning!

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Next we moved onto the section about health, an area in which I have a particularly morbid interest! A personal favourite of mine was a cholera map produced in 1854 by John Snow (neither the Channel 4 newsreader nor the illegitimate son of Ned Stark). Using a map of London’s streets, Snow, a physician, plotted cholera outbreaks and identified an apparent correlation between the location of a particular water pump and the number of cholera cases.

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It was never proven that it was this pump solely responsible for causing the outbreak within the specific area – a friendly reminder, perhaps, that correlation doesn’t imply causation – but nonetheless the pump handle was removed in an attempt to control infection rates. This graphic also gave me the harsh realisation that I’d almost completely forgotten everything I learnt about Victorian germ theory as part of my MA, and when Allan arrived on the topic I behaved like an excited schoolboy, knowing that in the depths of my brain I had knowledge on this very subject!

Finally it was onto genetics and evolution. This is something I’m interested in but know little about, so I found the entire section very educational. From Ernst Haeckel’s early diagrams detailing the ‘pedigree of man’ to the stunningly artistic Circos visualisations of human genomic data plotted against the genes of other species, this section was a great way of visually showing our similarities with all things living.

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Elsewhere whilst visiting, one of the group made friends with some American tourists and was busy promoting the work of ONS to our transatlantic cousins, who, I must say, were incredibly interested in what we do. Naturally we exited through the gift shop (which is pretty cool, it must be said) and a considerate designer bought pencils and postcards for those still in the office.

The exhibit is free to attend and runs until 26 May 2014.

Martin Nicholls, Head of Editorial

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