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Data Visualizations 'Worth a Million Words' Unveiled at UM

By UM News

Data Visualizations 'Worth a Million Words' Unveiled at UM

By UM News
Places & Spaces: Mapping Science, a traveling exhibition of 100 maps that present data in visually stunning formats, debuts at UM.

From a visual guide that shows how your federal tax dollars are spent, to an interactive chart capable of simulating a naked-eye view of the sky from any location on Earth, Places & Spaces: Mapping Sciencewas unveiled on the University of Miami campus Thursday evening, showcasing 100 maps that present data in visually stunning formats.

“If a picture is worth a thousand words, the 100 images in Places & Spaces are worth millions,” UM Executive Vice President and Provost Thomas J. LeBlanc told about 300 people who gathered at the School of Architecture’s Stanley and Jewell Glasgow Lecture Hall, where 50 of the visualizations are now on display.

The other 50 maps, along with Places & Spaces’ 3-D and interactive elements, are being showcased at the Richter Library, which has launched a parallel exhibition, This Space, This Place, featuring a collection of maps and diagrams by local talent. When lined up side by side, the 100 visualizations that make up Places & Spaces would stretch 600 linear feet, the length of two football fields.

“Data visualization turns spreadsheets into stories,” explained LeBlanc, noting that rows and columns of data can be arranged to make complex ideas easily understandable to people who may not have a background in or know very little about the subject matter.

His comment was right on the money. Prior to the opening ceremony, scores of UM students, faculty, staff, and visitors walked the circular hall inside Glasgow Hall, looking at and reading the descriptions of the many visualizations on display that addressed themes in disciplines as varied as meteorology, literature, history, biology, medicine, and political science. The diversity of the maps cut to the heart of the exhibition’s intended purpose, which is to inspire cross-disciplinary discussion on how to best track and communicate human activity and scientific progress on a global scale.

Visualizations, said Katy Börner, the Victor H. Yngve Professor of Information Science at Indiana University in Bloomington who came up with the idea for the exhibition, have the power to cross disciplinary boundaries, connect different areas of research, and help people navigate the landscape of science.

“Many people use Google today as main means to access information, knowledge, and expertise. However, Google always keeps you underground of facts. You can, of course, follow linkages to find related facts, but it never lifts you up. It never lets you seize the ocean of knowledge you’re actually fishing in,” said Börner, who is also the founding director of IU’s Cyberinfrastructure for Network Science Center. “Much of what my center is doing is developing tools that empower anyone to convert data into insights. For that reason, some of these maps are excellent examples of how you can lift somebody up and let them see a much more global, holistic picture.”

With a grant from the National Science Foundation, Börner startedPlaces & Spaces in 2005 with ten visualizations. Since then, ten new maps have been added each year, culminating in its current 100, which have also graced the walls of the National Academy of Sciences, Stanford University, the American Museum of Science and Energy—and now UM.

The Center for Computational Science (CCS), College of Arts and Sciences, School of Communication, Otto G. Richter Library, and School of Architecture collaborated to bring the exhibition to UM. In his remarks, LeBlanc noted that a new CCS-managed visualization lab will soon open in UM’s Ungar Building, allowing faculty and students to teach and conduct research with the aid of 2-D and 3-D displays.

During the fall semester, world-renowned visualization designers and researchers will speak at UM about their work with big data and how it relates to Places & Spaces. All events are free and open to the public, but registration is required for many of them. For more information, visit the UM Visualization website.