SIAM News Blog

Data Visualization to Enhance Science Communication

By Lina Sorg

Visualization is a key tool of communication. Data visualizations lie on a continuum that ranges from simple to complex and familiar to unfamiliar. While researchers should certainly not shy away from presenting complex, unfamiliar material to the broader community, they must make the complicated science of their work accessible to this new audience. During a minisymposium presentation at the 2019 SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering, currently taking place in Spokane, Wash., Maria Weber of the University of Chicago shared visualization techniques to improve the effectiveness of science communication.

Weber, a stellar dynamo theorist, is a National Science Foundation Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium. The field of astronomy has a long history of visual storytelling through planetariums. While early versions of these theaters used large alien-looking metal projectors, today’s planetariums employ immersive state-of-the-art simulations. Weber acknowledged the ways in which technology continues to change the paradigm of astrophysical data presentation. “Our new technology-driven world has allowed us to push what is possible in data-driven visualization storytelling,” she said.

Nearly all science centers use high-quality visualization displays to explain concepts to their visitors. However, determining how to transform scientist-friendly visualizations into ones that are meaningful to the general public is no easy task. Weber suggested that researchers first establish the purpose of sharing their data with the broader community, and consider whether they want their target audience to learn as viewers, explorers, or interpreters. They should also identify their data’s story, and either design that narrative to support their visualizations or redesign their existing visualizations with their new audience in mind. At the Adler, Weber and her colleagues cater to their visitors through immersive experiences that transform them into explorers. For example, a new sky show called “Imagine the Moon” invites attendees to view the Moon as if from a spacecraft while simultaneously imparting scientific data. “Raw scientific visualizations can be transformed to a public audience with masks and color schemes to invoke a hot, vaporized process,” Weber said of the graphical depiction of the Moon’s formation.

When experimenting with different color schemes, scientists must acknowledge any existing mental associations their audience might have regarding color. For example, colormaps are frequently utilized to recognize endothelial shear stress (ESS) and diagnose heart disease; traditional rainbow color schemes are used most frequently. However, a published study indicated that people presented with the customary rainbow graphics could only correctly identify areas with low ESS 39 percent of the time. When the low ESS regions were colored red and background areas white, the rate of identification accuracy jumped to 71 percent. In this case, the audience associated the bold, red areas as negative.

Weber then redirected discussion back to the planetarium. She spoke of a recent expensive visualization that Adler produced depicting the formation of dark matter and its subsequent clumping into galaxies. Alder chose shades of blue for the video because they seemed most aesthetically-pleasing, but a later poll of viewers indicated that a black-and-white color scheme was much more intuitive to the public. Only 24 percent of people could accurately distinguish the dark matter (colored light blue) in the Adler video. When the footage was converted to black and white, a whopping 73 percent of viewers correctly identified the black dark matter. “When you can, definitely test your visualization on a group before introducing it to the world,” Weber said. 

In Adler’s Space Visualization Lab (SVL), researchers, technology experts, artists, and educators work together to help visitors virtually explore the universe. Some guests don three-dimensional (3D) glasses as scientists walk them through more technical concepts, while others engage in live interactive simulations. “We challenge them to create a visualization that matches actual galaxy mergers,” Weber said. Attendees also have the opportunity to explore interactive displays on their own, approaching staff to ask further questions of topics that particularly interest them. Complicated visualizations work well in this instance because of the opportunity for follow-up. Lastly, nearly all guests enjoy the SVL’s 3D printer. “It’s a great way to promote accessibility at your institution,” Weber said. “Once you get someone physically engaged you automatically get them mentally engaged.”

Visualization does not have to be limited to on-site locations. Dynamic web pages can be an effective means of making visualizations accessible to people beyond the science center environment. For instance, Alder has a site that allows visitors to explore the Aquarius Asteroid’s orbit via a Java script that renders 3D graphics in a web browser. They can zoom in on the Solar System’s planets and observe their surfaces based on footage from actual telescope surveillance.

Despite the many opportunities for data visualization within the realm of science communication, untapped potential remains. Ever-changing technology continues to advance the capabilities of immersive experiences, and the International Planetarium Society’s Data to Dome initiative intends to further augment scientific data visualization within planetarium settings. “We’re only beginning to tap what is possible within data visualization,” Weber said.

Lina Sorg is the associate editor of SIAM News.
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