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  • Cori Iannaggi

The Inspiration Behind Beauty of Data – Part 1

Hello blog readers! My name is Cori Iannaggi and I am the former MuseLab manager. My last project as the manager of the space (Fall 2015) was to co-curate the exhibit, Beauty of Data. My blog will be the first part of a two-part story about the process that went into creating Beauty of Data and the wonderful work that inspired me to think about data visualizations in a new light.

Before Beauty of Data became the exhibit it is today, it started off as a basic concept. Dr. Latham, MuseLab Director, proposed the idea of doing an exhibit on “the beauty of big data” in the Spring of 2015 after seeing many spectacular data visualizations created across the field of Library and Information Science, including those from our own faculty and students. My initial thought was, “hmm, how am I going to make a gallery full of 2D visualizations interesting enough to get people to stop and look AND get them to see the visualizations as works of art?” When I heard the term “data visualization”, it brought back images of Microsoft Excel bar graphs and pie charts. While I knew these were not the only representations of data visualization, I was worried that members of the Kent State community would have the same thought as well, and not even consider visiting an exhibit about data (a.k.a. sounds like a snooze fest!). So, the next step was to find out what data visualizations could be and how to develop an exhibit with these creations that would be exciting, interesting, and visually appealing.

To get my research going in the right direction, Dr. Latham suggested I look at a blog by Steven Lubar, a professor of American Studies and Public Humanities at Brown University. It was after reading this blog that I became excited about creating our exhibit. Lubar shares examples of how people are intentionally turning data into something beautiful. One of my favorites that falls under this category is Colour Lens–an experimental website that allows you to search art by color. The intuitive design of the site makes it fun for the viewer to play around and explore art in a non-traditional manner. Lubar also shares examples of how researchers have unintentionally created a beautiful piece of art by visualizing their data, like The Life and Death of Data, a visualization of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum Plant Accessions from 1872-2012 in a design similar to that of tree rings. This piece makes it possible to view the Arboretum’s entire accession record of woody plants (over 70,000 entries) in one easy to follow, beautifully illustrated visual.

These examples demonstrated to me that data visualizations could be expressed in ways I never considered. Researchers are exploring innovative ways to make data easily accessible and visually attr​​active through technology, and other researchers are visualizing their data in creative and unique ways that can capture the viewer’s attention. When I look at these visualizations now I think, “Well, duh! Of, course these beautiful things are data visualizations! Why were bar graphs and pie charts my first thought?” With all of these ideas related to data visualization circling around in my brain, I begin to wonder how other researchers define the term.

After reviewing Lubar’s work, I was introduced to the work of Edward Tufte, a statistician and professor focused on political science, statistics, and computer science at Yale University. He has written multiple books on data visualization, including Beautiful Evidence (2006), which helps researchers present scientific data in a visually effective way using artistic techniques. In Tuft’s opinion, evidence (or data) can be anything, such as words, images, numbers, diagrams, and/or objects. If data can be anything, why can’t data visualizations be presented in various formats? Tuft and Lubar had challenged me to think of data visualization in much broader terms that encompassed much more than traditional 2-D visualizations. I then found myself wanting to know how researchers from various fields of research visualized their data and what visual methods (2-D graphics, 3-D models, audiovisual, etc.) they find the most effective for sharing their research.

In order to narrow down the scope of the project, Dr. Latham and I decided that the exhibit should focus on the work of Kent State University researchers from multiple disciplines across the campus rather than solely from our department. This fulfilled another aspect of the MuseLab’s mission, which is to collaborate across the campus.

By this point, the Summer 2015 semester was nearly complete, and it was now time to begin thinking about how we were going to entice Kent State researchers to participate and how to design the exhibit without knowing what exactly was going to be in it. Yikes!

Enter Mitch Sumner–co-curator and new MuseLab Manager as of Fall 2015. To find out more about the process of acquiring participants and the installation of the exhibit, stay tuned (March 1) for a follow-up blog from Mitch’s perspective about how the conceptual idea of Beauty of Data was transformed into the Beauty of Data exhibit currently on view in the MuseLab wall gallery.