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With the sheer amount of information that is available to us at the click of a button, we may often find ourselves completely overwhelmed after a simple online browse. While our information age comes with its benefits, it also comes with its drawbacks. With so much competing information, the human brain can only process and remember so much. Scientists found that an average person today can process as much as 74 gigabytes (GB) of data a day. To put this into context, this is the equivalent of streaming every episode of Game of Thrones. However, even with this processing power, we are likely to completely forget at least 50% of the information within the first hour. After 24 hours, this goes up to 70%. 

Understanding the volume of information available in the world today and the brain’s processing power and memory capacity, scientists and science communicators are faced with the daunting challenge of making data and information accessible and understood. 

Data visualisation has become a crucial component of science communication. In order for us to understand the global sustainability issues that face us, we need to understand the science and data. Information and data visualisation is the most powerful modality for communicating big data and complex science messages. 

Let’s look at the importance of data and information visualisation:

Enhanced visitor experience. 

With such a stimulating world around us, we are constantly responding to visual cues, on a conscious and subconscious level. Visual information plays an important role in helping us make decisions. While a well-written story can be stimulating enough for us to form a connection with the subject, science data is voluminous and complex. For science-based theories and research to be understood by anyone in the public, it should be succinct and digestible. Data visualisation is an effective method for creating a story with data that many people can relate to. Data visualisation paints a picture for the visitor. Great data visualisation will not only create a clear story but will also inspire visitors to explore the data further.

Accessibility and audience background

Our backgrounds, cultural experiences, level of education, and disability will all influence how we consume and interpret information. Data visualisation is a universal language and can be a more inclusive approach to science communication, taking into account levels of education, language, and disability. When designing the visual aspects of a museum or science centre exhibit, the first question that should be asked is who is this exhibit targeted towards. This will guide how data will be conveyed through the visual elements of the exhibit. 

Understanding and interpretation of information and data

Humans are visually oriented and can quickly recognize patterns, trends, and outliers in visual representations. When consuming visual data, we are more likely to identify linkages that resemble our everyday lives. 

How does our food waste contribute to climate change? The data and science behind this, for example, can be challenging to understand, as it includes information on organic waste biodegradation, methane production and the greenhouse gas effect. This is a lot of information for a single person to digest and understand. When the process of waste disposal and biodegradation is visually mapped out, it can be easier for us to see the bigger picture and contextualise it in a way that we can understand our own contributing roles.

Data visualisation allows us to link data to the visual story to see the patterns, trends and comparisons that help us make sense of a phenomenon. 

Improving data literacy 

Given the complexity of science information and data, you could argue that it’s an entire language in itself. By educating citizens on the science behind the most pressing sustainability issues, we are empowering them to make informed decisions on actions they could take. This however will require the use of different modalities for science communication and education, including written storytelling, audio, visual displays, interactive experiences and immersive experiences. 

Often when data is experienced through one modality, it can be more easily adopted and understood through another; it improves the visitor’s ability to comprehend the story, no matter how it is shared.

When creating exhibits, visual design and storytelling is an opportunity to create a highly stimulating and exciting visitor experience. The goal is not only for the visitor to understand the story, but for them to feel inspired enough to share it themselves.