Digital storytelling can offer unprecedented insights into scientific data for both the lay public and scientific researchers, says Samuel Van Ransbeek.
Guest contributor Samuel Van Ransbeek
In the century of information, it has become fashionable to make data publicly available. Governments, NGO’s, private companies and others seem to be in a race to make the most data available as soon as possible. However, with petabytes of data being published every day, we have to ask ourselves: What are we going to do with all the data? Publishing them online is only one part of the job. We need to harness the data so that people can understand and interact with them.
Furthermore, in an era of scientific complexity and with the deluge of data currently being produced by research, it becomes paramount to engage the general public so they do not become distanced from science and important societal issues.
There are various possibilities in making data accessible. Here I’ll give just a few examples of what others are doing to engage the public with scientific data.
Infographics are more than just some stacked columns and graphs. They are a visual way of storytelling through data. Infographics reveal the often abstract, statistical data and present them in a format which is easy to absorb. It has become a mainstream phenomenon in contemporary journalism and in mass communication in general. For example, the New York Times regularly creates compelling infographics such as on the United States’s presidential primary elections. Nature also collects data and turns it into infographics, like in this one about scientific publishing in South America or this one on cannabis.
Data visualization is not merely eye-candy,it can be used for scientific research as well. As data are presented in a spatial way, it allows researchers to easily compare data and reveal different levels of detail in a dataset, something that is impossible with a simple table. The Mapping Globalization Project collects various datasets that are somehow related to globalization. Researchers can explore these datasets and create different kinds of maps and animations.
As infographics gain popularity, many applications are available for anyone to have a go. datavisualization.ch for instance, offers an extensive overview and shows several examples.
These are more versatile than static ones as they allow the audience to travel through a data series, going back and forth in time or space to have a closer look and compare series, amongst other things. Milatz’s research contends that through dynamic and interactive infographics, the user is able to better recall the information he digested.
For example, Music Timeline, by Google’s Big Picture Research Group, lets people look at music trends on various levels. Rock music is a top-level category but when selecting that category, it is split into various types of rock music. Furthermore, pointing at a certain time period will reveal the artists and their albums of that time.
Projects like Arvid Tomayko’s Geophonics, use audio interaction rather than visuals, so that the user can explore the geological properties of the state of Massachusetts: he draws a line over the map and a needle traverses that line. Each geological property has a different sound assigned to it so by passing over the map, a melody is created. The user can combine various lines and set up different mappings so that a polyphonic composition emerges. In this work, the goal is double: the user can get to know more about the geology of Massachusetts but also create an aesthetic experience.
On a more political level, Isao Hashimoto created a sonification of all nuclear explosions between 1945 and 1998, as a protest against nuclear proliferation. Others have combined oral and visual presentations, such as a team at New York City University did with the Polar Seeds project, which demonstrated climatic changes in Greenland and the wider Polar Region.
Projects like this could be considered art: the data are used to tell a story but we do not necessarily need to understand the methods that produced the numbers. This way of storytelling can engage the public and create awareness, which can have positive effects on future research. If the general public understands what is happening, it will be more inclined to support science.
We can simply enjoy data in a more aesthetical way rather than a purely analytic one: the audience does not need to understand the data themselves, but only the underlying messages behind it. If art can tell a story and convey the message, it will engage the public and allow them to reflect on important issues that in their lives.
Samuel Van Ransbeeck is a runner up in the 2015 Scientific Data writing competition. He is currently a researcher at the Open University in Milton Keynes for the MK:Smart project, working mainly in the field of algorithmic music, incorporating extra-musical elements in his practice to control musical parameters. In his spare time, he is also a composer, and works together with visual artists to create interdisciplinary art such as music videos or installation art.