Visualise it

Ponder this… You’re teaching a class or educating a group and you want to use something visual (perhaps interactive). Should you go for the sandwich or the onion approach?

sandwichor food-onion?

Let’s come back to that analogy later!

In my opinion, evolutionary leaps in the way information has been visualised has contributed to leaps in knowledge and understanding. Whether you subscribe to the concept of learning styles (or one or more of the many variants thereof) or swim against that tide based on the lack of study-based evidence is, in this case, irrelevant. The point of visualisation is not primarily to assist greater understanding by being more visual, but to do so by making complex connections, components and patterns more digestible.

For this main part of this blog entry, which serves to make you aware of some cool useful stuff out there as well as give my thoughts, I’ll be making use of visualisations from Places & Spaces: Mapping Science, a curation of visualisations by the Cyberinfrastructure for Network Science Center or CNS (snazzy name, eh?)

To back up my thoughts on this, let’s start with some of the earliest visualisations which attempt to compile a lot of information in a spatial way: maps.

As messy as this may appear, maps from the Middle Ages owe a lot to the Roman mathematician Ptolemy (100-170 AD) who is generally credited with being the father of the modern day latitude-longitude system, a key component to making accurate spatial maps. As time went by, maps became more accurate and understandable, and absolutely crucial in the age of expansion, exploration and empire. Source:

Maps of the New World helped the average European to bring the discovery of America out from a fantasy and into a concept they could see and grasp. It is argued that mapping America created it’s own positive feedback: the more that was mapped, the more people were encouraged to colonise the new land, which boosted the need for greater and more detailed mapping… (Not to forgot all this being to the detriment of the natives. So perversely, visualisation and mapping helped destroyed many cultures, and not just in America).

So now to have a look at some of my visualisation picks from I enjoyed spending the time browsing their catalogue, not just to see potential teaching resources, but also purely for my own fascination. I strongly encourage you to browse its map collection yourself to see what floats your visualisation boat. I think there is a lot there for teachers of many subjects, particularly Maths, Science, Art, History, Geography, Philosophy…

Clicking on the title below each visualisation will take you to the website where you can read more about it and zoom into a high resolution image.

Hypothetical Model of the Evolution and Structure of Science. Ok, I admit, I don’t totally get it but I find it very compelling to look at. Turning hypothetical models etc into artwork is something that needs a lot more appreciation and discussion. This conceptualises the interconnectivity of science. Even money (e.g. funding research) is represented in this as the yellow areas, giving birth to new ideas (in blue) or how they helped older established ideas (in brown) to get going. I’m still trying to figure out the big ‘dragon void’ on the right… anyone have any ideas!? A visualisation like that could be inspiration for an interesting Art-Science cross-curricular project, maybe!
Ecological Footprint. Many teachers will be familiar with these ‘balloon maps’ already, but they still remain one of my favourite kinds of visualisations out there. My personal experience in using these in the classroom has found that students need a little bit of time to explore for themselves what these are really showing. A little coaching has been necessary at times. But once the concept of disproportionately sized areas of the world representing something clicks, students can then suddenly interpret many other data sets mapped this way. An ex-student of mine bought me The Atlas of the Real World as a thank you, it’s a stunning collection of these bubble maps. You can also find many of these maps at the Worldmapper database.
Tracing of Key Events in the Development of the Video Tape Recorder. I really like this one. Science and Design & Technology teachers in particular need to take note. Being an 80s child the video tape recorder was king (also of course, related, the cassette mixtapes!!!) But, wow, look at all those STEM concepts that led to the birth of the video tape recorder! Seeing something like this really does make STEM more tangible, and why one little concept unrelated may seem trivial until it is combined with others. Now where did I store all those movies I taped onto VHS…?
Realigning the Boston Traffic Separation Scheme to Reduce the Risk of Ship Strike to Right and Other Baleen Whales. Increasingly visualisations are being used to reduce human impact on the environment. They do so by often overlapping more than one piece of information onto a visualisation such a map (a product of Geographical Information Systems, or GIS). Shipping in the Massachusetts Bay was found to be creating a lot of harm to the Baleen whale population. So through study, a map was produced to highlight areas where whale populations were more dense and the shipping lanes were changed as a result (from the black dashed line to the solid line). This change could not have been made without a clear visualisation of where the whales were hanging out (and risking being bonked on the head).
Mobile Landscapes: Using Location Data from Cell Phones for Urban Analysis. The use of ubiquitous connective technology is proving to be a boon for the creators of visualisations. This series of maps uses geo-referenced mobile phone activity. Although this has a massive feel of ‘big brother’ about it, this source of big data can give you very interesting patterns, such as how populations of people move through parts of a city throughout rush hour. If you have time to search for more like this, you can find other use of phone signal data such as this.
The Millennium Development Goals Map. I included this one not just because it’s a great visualisation combining a map (of HDI) and graphs, but also because the National Geographic do amazing visualisations in each and every issue of their magazine on a range of topics. Just pick up one magazine and flick through, and you’re bound to find something that catches the eye.
Diseasome: The Human Disease Network. This is a really interesting visualisation showing a ‘network’ of diseases, showing links between those which have common genetic information. What I gained from this myself is that cancer, being that huge orange patch in the top-right, makes up for a lot of diseases that are connected by their genes. So, in other-words, if we do find a cure for cancer, that would be a massive leap forward in medicine. Having said that, do you know what the most prevalent disease is? Deafness.
Human Speechome Project. In simplest terms, each bubble is a ‘word birth’. This is where a little toddler utters a comprehensible word for the very first time. The colour of the bubble represents the family member present, and the location of the bubble where that word was born. My description doesn’t do it justice; go check it out for yourself – the visualisation of this study is fascinating!
History of Science Fiction. Hands up if you are a Sci-Fi/fantasy geek?! *Raises hand*. This is a artsy timeline of the history of science fiction. One thing it shows is the massive impact Star Wars had on the genre back in the 1970s and 1980s. I’m more of a Trekkie, so…  It’s a timeline, Jim, but not as we know it!
Gapminder World Map. Over this graph: geographers UNITE! If you teach statistics, Geography or anything related to human development if you have never seen Gapminder then you are missing out. The father of the Gapminder movement, the late Hans Rosling, is a hero of mine, as a previous blog entry testifies.
Left vs. Right Political Spectrum. For me, this visualisation has the potential of being an effective conversation piece. Communicating political ideals is complex and tricky, and it is rarely bi-polar as this would suggest. However, the way it is set out does lay the basis for Socratic discussion and debate, plus it’s a good starter if you are teaching politics!
Movie Narrative Charts (Comic #657). Yes, yes and yes to more visualisations like this: anyone who loves reading fiction can’t fail to appreciate these. Any English literature teachers out there? Give something like this a go for each of the books you are studying. Is it just me or does the LOTR timeline look like Smaug?
Map of the Internet. Wait, don’t pass this one up because it looks like another one of those old maps. Google, Microsoft and Apple as entire continents!? Perhaps this is what the internet would look like if it was a planet of land-masses and oceans. The ‘new world’ in the west consists of the more modern internet names like Google and Facebook. Do you know where this map was first published? DeviantArt. Apple is an island; it wants to be by itself…
Hurricanes & Tropical Storms—Locations and Intensities since 1851. Fellow Geography teachers have no doubt seen and/or used this map from NASA. So I include this one in ‘my picks’ because it changes that familiar rectangular map into a different projection, giving the pattern a whole new dimension. New projections of familar visualisations, to me, make you go back and look at something again, and perhaps spot something else that you didn’t see in the ‘original’.
Money. I’ll just say you best look at this one in more detail. It makes money even more scary than it already is (at least to all of us who aren’t in the richest 1% of the world…), especially when you notice that it juxtaposes each order of magnitude onto the next. Suddenly my net-worth doesn’t seem so significant!


So they are all my favourite ‘static’ visualisations. Now onto the interactive ones. These visualisations are part of what are called macroscopes. Rather than penning a definition, I think the way IBM uses the term is more helpful instead:

In five years, we will use machine-learning algorithms and software to help us organize the information about the physical world to help bring the vast and complex data gathered by billions of devices within the range of our vision and understanding. We call this a “macroscope” – but unlike the microscope to see the very small, or the telescope that can see far away, it is a system of software and algorithms to bring all of Earth’s complex data together to analyze it by space and time for meaning. – IBM Research

Macroscopes are increasingly becoming a major component to the newest visualisations, thanks to big data in particular. Here’s some for you from, but to get the full benefit of each, you’d best go play with them!

Earth. This really is a thing of beauty. Since the pioneering platform of Google Earth, there have now been numerous but more specialised off-shoots. This one from nullschool in particular focuses on atmospheric and oceanic patterns. It’s not as flashy or complex as Windy, but that’s its charm in my opinion. Just don’t stare at it too long; it’s hypnotic (for the right reasons!)
Histography. Macroscopes aren’t just for the present and future, they are also being used to explore the past in more depth. This one is a great idea using Wikipedia entries of historical events. Clicking on each of the categories on the left allows you to see if there are patterns to historical events. Interesting, how wars come in pulses and cycles… You can also select more than one category; perhaps things in history are related?
FleetMon Explorer. The study of logistics has increasingly become important as the world continued to get smaller and smaller from globalisation. This plus the digitalisation of logistical data lends perfectly to a macroscope visualisation. FleetMon is one such example. The depth of information in the shipping industry alone is just mind-boggling. Now do a mind experiment adding this to the transport industry as a whole. That’s a lot of logistical information!

All these have been collated into a single website. If you are into creating visualisations yourself, you can actually submit them to the Cyberinfrastructure for Network Science Center for inclusion in their Mapping Science catalogue.

Here are a few more macroscopes that you may find interesting or useful:

  • AcademyScope – If you are an active researcher or like dipping into the more academic literature of something that interests you, this interactive database will show you the wealth of journals and publications (and their links) in each area of study.
  • The GDELT Project – To quote the website: Supported by Google Jigsaw, the GDELT Project monitors the world’s broadcast, print, and web news from nearly every corner of every country in over 100 languages and identifies the people, locations, organizations, themes, sources, emotions, counts, quotes, images and events driving our global society every second of every day, creating a free open platform for computing on the entire world.
  • CultSci (then click on ‘nature video’) – An excellent video charting and visualising cultural links. You can go into more depth by reading up about the study by clicking on the links under the video.


There’s an app for that!

If you want to play around with visualisations on your smartphone… well, there’s an app for that! Check out the highly rated Information Visualization MOOC Flashcards for iPhone and Android.

Back to the sandwich and the onion…

This analogy particularly resonates with me, as I am a fan of visualisations that allow you to turn on and off different layers and components (GIS for example). How you utilise these layers can make a difference to how well the visualisation is understood by those trying to interpret it.


The ‘sandwich’ approach is to have everything in a visualisation turned off at first, so the only thing you see to start with is the base layer (like a street map) or the foundation information. Then, once you’ve grasped that base layer/information, you then turn on another layer, and interpret that in relation. And again if there are more layers available. The base layer is the bread, the information layers, keys, legends etc are the filling.

food-onionThe ‘onion’ approach is to start by having everything in a visualisation turned on first. Everything including any labels and keys are already visible. Then you turn off one or more layers at a time until you see something you can interpret. Once having the hang of that, you can turn layers back on again.


The City of London interactive map is an example of the ‘sandwich’ approach. You start with a base map and then you can click on individual layers to turn them on and see where their features are located.

This Norfolk (UK) highways map however is an example where all the layers are turned on to start. With this approach you have to interpret the key and the labels first and deconstruct (peel the onion) from there.

Which method do you think is more effective in helping users to understand and interpret the visualisation? Well, studies suggest that the sandwich approach works best. With the Norfolk highways map, I can certainly see that with all the layers turned on to start with, people could confuse the parish boundaries (in grey) for roads, given the title of the visualisation. Onions make us cry anyway…


With thanks to Lisel Record of CNS from whom the sandwich vs onion analogy and links to these visualisation resources came courtesy of an Exploratorium meeting I attended hosted by Jennifer Frazier (pictured left). If you are further interested how visualisations are understood by those who look at them, have a look at this study about ‘data visualisation literacy’.


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