The Social Scholar
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Social Scholar: data and visualisation

This month’s Social Scholar seminar features Dr Martin Zaltz Austwick, a lecturer in advanced spatial analysis and visualisation, discussing how he uses data to make sense of, and communicate the structure of communities and spatial systems.

I consider myself a quantitative social scientist with a dash of humanity(s), having studied physical science to PhD level, worked as a medical physicist and most recently found myself working as a lecturer in CASA (Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis), a particularly technical wing of University College London’s Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment.

I’ve done work visualising and analysing bike share data (for example, the Santander bikes in London), and I am currently working on projects to communicate architectural history in Whitechapel, map patterns of sharing in Hackney Wick, measure people’s neurological responses to Oxford Street and find ways to co-ordinate couriering in central London to reduce congestion and carbon emissions.

Technology allows others kinds of visualisations apart from maps and graphs

CASA is full of mathematicians, software developers and computer scientists as well as geographers, architects and planners, so I don’t feel too incongruous there. In fact, it’s that subject diversity that makes it an interesting place to work, and allow us to do such interesting work. That sociable ‘scholarly-ness’ means we’re never inward-looking – we look outside our subject and department, and work with communities, companies and bits of government to create research which links to things going on in the real world.

I find it satisfying to try to find ways to connect and communicate the work I do with the wider world. It is something I also found interesting when I was a physicist, so it’s not purely a question of working in a very applied field. One of the ways I (and we) communicate is through data visualisation – taking real data (or simulations of the world) and turning them into images. This isn’t new – maps and graphs are data visualisations – it is just that technology now allows other kinds of visualisations.

I’ve been asked to talk about the difference between infographics and visualisation. I’m reminded of the physicist Paul Dirac’s opinion of poetry; that science’s job is to take the complex and make it seem simple, and that poetry’s job is the opposite. You might try substituting ‘visualisation’ for ‘science’ and ‘infographics’ for ‘poetry’. With that statement, Paul Dirac pretty much defines himself as a philistine so I’d only take it seriously if you want to be someone who hates beautiful things. In reality, the dividing line between datavis and infographics is soggy and permeable, but I would characterise the former as being more design – or narrative-focussed with less rich data content. Unlike Paul Dirac, I don’t regard the creation of beautiful or engaging things as a waste of time. And finding ways to connect with people and share ideas, and enthusiasm, about the work you do is something I value.

Value to digital humanities and social science

What can people expect from my talk? Well, less blanket rejection of poetry as an art form. I don’t think I’ll even talk about poetry at all, and not because I don’t like it. Tl;dr: If you come expecting a provocative critique of poetry, you will likely be disappointed. I’ll be talking about data and visualisation, and how I, and others, have used data to try to understand and communicate the structure of communities and spatial systems, and what value I think these techniques have in the digital humanities and social sciences. I’ll be asking people to tell me what value they see in these approaches, and what they see as problematic. I hope there’ll be a friendly discussion.

To find out more about this event and register your interest to attend, please check our Eventbrite page. The Social Scholar is a series of free lunchtime seminars organised by the School of Advanced Study to investigates the ‘social’ aspect of academic work including social media, public engagement, and the digital humanities.

Digital visualisation and mapping communities of practice
Wednesday 17 February, 1–2pm
Location: Room 243 (Senate House)
Speaker: Martin Zaltz Austwick

Abstract: Are digital visualisations useful for engaging people with research and can they provide actual research benefits to the academic? Visualisation is widespread in communicating ideas in the form of infographics and for displaying and understanding digitised big data. These are two very different forms of visualisation, but is there a middle ground?

Eventbrite link

Featured image: © Shutterstock

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