The open data revolution, driven by a growing number of conscientious researchers and enlightened academic publishers, is making more data available to scientists and the public at large than ever before. Alone and without context, this mass of data can be a daunting deluge of numbers. Visualisation helps us not only to understand the conclusions of research, but transmits ideas across disciplines and cultural boundaries, creating a collaborative infrastructure that actually improves the quality of science being done. Visualisation may also help drive home the social and economic consequences of research, for example in understanding global environmental change. Visualising data allows us to understand systems on a wide range of scales, from the global to the local.
“Visualisation is about placing data in a human context,” said Jer Thorpe, data artist-in-residence at the New York Times, as he presented a display mapping out key moments in his life as points on a map for a recent TED (Technology-Education Design) talk. As one of a new breed of infographics designers – whether graphic artists interested in data, or statisticians interested in communicating data visually – Thorpe plays a key role in helping the public to understand complex issues in science. Just as the free press has made political decision-making an open process in democracies, so these information journalists are making scientific data truly available to everyone, explaining research findings clearly and openly.