Can we tap, swipe, and zoom to make sense of big data?
by Daniela • August 29, 2019
Whenever you check your heart rate graphs on a Fitbit, or explore maps of election poll results, you are using visualizations to make sense of big data.
Visualizations—computer-generated visual representations of data—are an increasingly critical part of our everyday lives. They help scientists and the public make sense of the massive, complex datasets now collected everywhere, from weather satellites to genome sequencing machines to our own wearable sensors.
It can be difficult to feel empowered to navigate this flood of information, but helping people ask questions and understand the world around them is central to the Exploratorium’s mission. And so as huge scientific datasets have become more prevalent, we’ve expanded our focus on making visualizations for our visitors, while continuing to research the best approaches to design and development.
Jennifer Frazier, a senior scientist at the Exploratorium, is a leader in this work. Jennifer grew up in a house crammed with “cases of fossilized jellyfish” (collected by her dad, an amateur paleontologist) and vials of sand from around the world (belonging to her mom, a middle school science teacher). Inspired by this setting, and by her weekends spent outdoors, Jennifer went on to receive a BS in bioethics and genetics from UC Davis, followed by a PhD in cell biology from UCSF.
Today, Jennifer is helping visitors explore and make sense of datasets from the natural world. She is the lead researcher on our Living Liquid project, which aims to make marine biology data accessible to visitors through hands-on exhibits, and to discover ways to encourage visitors to ask questions about that data.
You can try your hand at exploring two datasets with touch-screen exhibits in our Living Systems Gallery:
- Plankton Populations explores the ever-changing population of plankton throughout the world’s oceans, with data from MIT’s Darwin Project.
- Mapping Migrations investigates the migration of the ocean’s top predators, with data from the Tagging of Pacific Predators project.
In May 2019, in an extension of this work, Jennifer also led the VISUALISE: Visualization for Informal Science Education conference here at the Exploratorium. VISUALISE was the first conference focused on creating effective visualizations for science museums and informal science education venues, and it brought together museum professionals, learning researchers, computer scientists, artists, and technology developers.
To read more about the influence our work has had this year – from education to environment to museum process and culture worldwide – read our 2019 Impact Report.