Info Viz from the Trenches


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Using information visualization to communicate ideas and help you understand your work.

Published in: Design, Education, Technology
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  • This presentation by Beck Tench, Director for Innovation and Digital Engagement at the Museum of Life and Science
    Info Viz from the Trenches refers to a DIY approach to information visualization. Visualizations that communicate ideas and help you understand your work.
  • I was originally hired at my museum as an agent of change. Funded by a grant that asked the question, “What happens when a science museum hires someone they normally wouldn’t hire to do something they normally wouldn’t do?” I have spent the last two years influencing the culture of my museum with regards to the use of technology in programs and exhibits. When I first started working for the museum, I learned of Paul Martin’s approach to exhibit design. He theorizes that in order to create environments where learning can occur, people have to feel safe and smart. I fell in love with this notion and applied it to my own work. In order to create a culture of risk taking and enthusiasm around digital projects, I needed to make my colleagues feel safe and smart around technology.
  • Information visualization was a big part of my approach. I used it to communicate new concepts (education) and to understand success and failure (encouragement).
  • This was the first information visualization I shared with the museum. I drew it on a white board at an All Staff meeting to explain the old model of web design and authority. The museum (in black) controls all information. The audience (in white) knows where to go to get it.
  • And then I drew this: a person with a device has a thought (about us) and communicates that to their friends and family. Now folks don’t have to wait for content from us to hear about us. Shared authority is a reality that we have to accept. These two illustrations went a long way to get us on the same page and proceed with projects that embraced shared authority.
  • Another example of the way I’ve used visualizations is to better understand data that’s hard to quantify. This slide is a scan of notes I made to myself during a seminar I attended in 2008. Heavy on my heart was the issue of how we understand and recognize co-creation of knowledge online, particularly on the Science Buzz blog. I had just started playing racquetball again and that was on my mind and I began to think of how a blog post comment stream might be visualized.
  • This is what I came up with. Various types of users (logged in, staff, anonymous, scientists) symbolized by various shapes and fills. It turns out the posts that were “nonsense” look like it (top right two), as do the posts that feel more engaging. The top left is a post that reveals some internal bickering amongst staff.
  • Here’s an example of visualizing as a way to understand something and as a way to communicate a concept: knowledge work. Knowledge work is often without easy indicators of progress or productivity and I wanted to better understand where my head had been and share that with my colleagues. For my creative process, I either draw in my notebook or write using the program Notational Velocity. So I went through several months of notebooks and NV notes and counted them against the things I do. It was an interesting look into what I’d been *thinking* most about, and what perhaps I find the most challenging. I noticed also that something I do quite a bit of (finding, listening and recording what people say about us online) wasn’t something I thought much about.
  • Nearly all of my online listening activities happen within my Gmail, so I decided to go over to Gmail and find data for the same time period and take a look at how much email I had to filter and process on a daily basis. Turns out my email load is quite manageable thanks to Gmail filters. This certainly makes a case for using the application instead of the museum’s default, which is Outlook.
  • Right now, though I’d like to acknowledge that nearly all of the visualizations I’ve focused on assume something: that you’re comfortable drawing. So I’d like to take a poll. Please raise your hand if you feel like you can draw. And as a follow-up, please raise your hand if you were once five years old.
  • Because if you were once five years old, then you can draw.
  • Just like our alphabet is a set of shapes that we’ve practiced to form letters that turn into words that communicate a message, so there exists a visual vocabulary of shapes that you can practice to form drawings that communicate a message.
  • So, if you feel intimidated to draw, please consider it. It’s changed my creative life and I think drawing is sometimes required in order to communicate ideas that words have difficultly conveying. Sometimes visualizing information by drawing or making hash marks in notebooks isn’t enough. Sometimes we need the power of computers to compute and graph. And it is in situations like this that we must be careful because the tools we have available to us on computers are notorious for not respecting the power of our visual perception.
  • ~70 percent of the sense receptors in our bodies are dedicated to processing vision and it’s imperative that as we proceed to communicate visually, we respect the biases that are inevitable with such a powerful sense. I have a slide at the very end of this presentation that points to a post I’ve created with recommended reading and workshops that’ll help you navigate the dangers of the programs that most of us have easy access to.
  • This chart is a good example of something I created that could be misleading visually. It indicates a 300%+ growth in mobile traffic on our website, but that traffic share is not even 7%. I’ve called out the y-axis and captioned in in red so that the potential misinterpretation is mitigated.
  • The pie chart is another ever-ready way to visualize information, but it doesn’t do much for us given that it’s very hard for us to compare area graphs quantitatively. One way to mitigate this is to call out each pie slice as a small multiple. Perhaps a better way is to avoid a pie chart altogether.
  • I think a big part of my success at creating energy and enthusiasm at my museum is through the use of visualizations in my work.
  • And I also think that it’s an inevitable core-competency for the museum worker. Microsoft Research put out a publication a couple years ago called “Being Human” and in it the outline four eras of computing, pointing out that we’ve come from a “mainframe era” of one computer for thousands of users and we’re headed into a “ubiquity era” of thousands of computers for one person. This means that not only for our staff and our business but also for our visitors and even our family life, data collection and visualization is going to have to be something we’re comfortable creating and using to understand our work and our lives.
  • Thank you for your attention. If you have questions or would like to discuss any part of this presentation, please contact me on Twitter at @10ch or by email at
  • As promised, the list of books, tools and workshops I recommend is maintained at
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