It wasn’t a particularly good start – the first text panel waxed lyrical about data graphics that “provide a point of intersection between science and graphic design, elegantly portraying complex information”. Great. So why use overly complex language to portray simple information? Luckily, the first exhibit illustrated precisely how graphic design can be used to make data interesting, approachable and kinda pretty, with whirling Van Gogh style swirls on a video screen showing the constant motion of the oceans. Created by NASA using data from satellites and monitoring stations, this is presumably the type of elegant portrayal the text panel writer is alluding to.
Round the corner from this was a look into evolution including an interactive tree of life. Using a large touch screen visitors are able to zoom in on an animated tree for a look at how mammals, reptiles, birds and amphibians fit together within the context of evolution. You can zoom in to look at individual species and it provides some information on them e.g. whether they are classed as endangered. Its a good example of data that would otherwise need an enormous piece of paper to be displayed in any comparable way. Although there is an example close by of similar data on paper and so you can make your mind up about which you prefer.
It’s not all interactive digitised data though, there are historic pieces too dating from the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries. For instance, William Farr’s 1848/49 report on cholera deaths, which introduced the first national system for recording public health. And the exhibition also shows historic data used for modern purposes with the East India Company’s meticulous weather observations at sea contributing to our understanding of climate change today.
For me, it was the oldest exhibit that really showed what can be gained from showing data in a clear way – in 1661 the first known tables of public health data were published. In a simple format 20 years worth of information is shown on one page telling you the year, cause of death and number of deaths of that cause per year. It was quite addictive looking at the different causes of death and making comparisons. For instance, 51 people starved to death over those 20 years, which was less than those that died of ‘lethargy’ (51 people), and the biggest causes of death were consumption and fever. While I enjoyed the interactive exhibits and graphs and diagrams, it was interesting that a simple table that allowed you to cross-reference data yourself was really the most engaging.
I expected the exhibition to be all about modern data or at least modern interpretations of data, but it is a real mix and I think it works really well – data is not a new concept, and neither is depicting it in graphic form and the exhibition does a great job at showing a range of old and new and where these can be used together.
Beautiful Science: Picturing data, inspiring insight
British Library, 96 Euston Road, London, NW1 2DB
Until 26 May 2014