The importance of data visualisation

For the last four weeks I have been taking an online course on “Sustainability”. I have looked at a number of issues like population growth and climate change.

I have noticed that a key part of the information that I have been looking at is a vast array of data. This is often presented as various forms of graph presented in different ways. Most of the information is presented in a manner that I have been used to throughout my life… bar charts, line graphs using the traditional X and Y axis.

I have though come across a really interesting presentation of data that uses advances in technology to allow for an interactive approach to data presentation. This approach is called “data visualisation” and basically allows you to take information presented in a pictorial form and play around with it.

This approach has been pioneered by people such as Hans Rosling, who, in some brilliant TED Talks, has been able to use visualisation to show just how changes in population, health and education have effected the world in the last fifty years and how it might play out in the future. To get a really good idea of his use of these visualisation techniques see his excellent website “Gapminder“.

In order to play around with some visualisation for yourself I would recommend that you look at Google’s tool “Public Data Explorer” and look at this video given by Hans Rosling’s son Ola:

 

Another powerful site that will show you the possibility of interactive data inquiry is “The Civil War“. In this site you can play around with a timeline to look at a period of the war and also look at a map to locate where certain battles took part. You can look at data about battles throughout the war and ask yourself pertinent questions that arise from what you find out.

One thing I noticed was a huge Confederate defeat in May/ June 1863 in Vicksburg, Mississippi. This was to be the making of the reputation of the commander of the Union Forces, Ulysses S. Grant. This was a battle I knew nothing about and I was able to find out about it by looking at a graph of Union/Confederate casualties that showed an obvious difference between the two competing forces as I ran my mouse across and came to the battle of Vicksburg.

This interactivity with data is surely the way that we must get our students to play around with data  and form questions and  hypotheses. It is yet another way that new technology is challenging the old ideas.We cannot just give our students the information that we want them to look at…we must leave them free to explore the ever-increasing data that they can interact with so powerfully.

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