Data visualization has become increasingly important in the academic world, but the cool thing about it is that it doesn’t have to be confined in that space. There are some really great projects that have emerged recently in many different realms that I want to explore.

While it’s not confined to this space, we’ll start in scholarly publishing with a really fascinating visualization from Meredith Reba, Femke Reitsma, and Karen C. Seto. Published on Scientific Data through, these researchers have spatialized the history of urbanization from 3700 BC to AD 2000. Previously, the only explicitly available population study like this was United Nations World Urbanization Prospects, but its information only went back to 1950. Using data from various sources, the creators of the new project were able to map out the entirety of urbanization, from Mesopotamia all the way to Los Angeles.

The intention of the research was to test the commonly held hypothesis that urban settlements begin in more fertile areas. Whether or not the study bears that out, they delivered an incredibly interesting look at the history of civilization. It will potentially allow other researchers, whether in anthropology, urban planning, or environmental studies, to use predictive modeling for purposes I can only imagine.


Even more informative, if fairly depressing, is the infographic video, “15 Years of Terror,” which details the history of terrorist attacks of more than 20 fatalities from 2000 to the present day. I think the video speaks for itself:

Moving into the medical field, students at Johns Hopkins developed a visualization method this past spring to predict the cause of pneumonia in children. Pneumonia being the number one infection-based cause of death in children worldwide, that’s a pretty big deal.

By entering various data points about a child, users are able to create a scatterplot map that shows the causes of disease in children with similar statistics.  This can allow doctors to predict children’s diseases, and thus properly treat them, potentially saving huge numbers of lives.

All of this comes out of a course at Johns Hopkins that teaches about data visualization and app development and, through that, the students were able to create something that helps doctors diminish the uncertainty of medical diagnosis. As Rebecca Yates Coley, the course instructor, states, “It gives doctors quantitative data and evidence to add to their expertise.” And it wasn’t just the pneumonia application that came out of that course. Other students developed apps to show symptomatic information on schizophrenia patients and an outcome predictor for prostate cancer patients.

These kinds of modeling really show the ways in which data can help people, both physically and professionally, but it doesn’t have to be all about history or diseases. Data visualization can also be fun. Take, for instance, this project that Gizmodo developed for HBO’s mega-hit series, Game of Thrones. For fans of the show, this is a clever little tool that uses Twitter data to analyze GoT mentions to determine character popularity, relationships between characters, plot points, and where in the world they were (don’t worry, the link is to the first episode, so no spoilers). This is done episode-by-episode, allowing fans to see the history of the show all in a neat little interactive interface.

Sure, it’s relatively meaningless on any substantive level, but it’s important to understand that data visualization isn’t just stuffy academic fodder. Really, if one has an interest in something and there’s data available, it can be visualized. With all the data that’s available, being able to understand it at a glance is extremely helpful, whether it’s pneumonia, Game of Thrones, vaccines, or the incredibly ridiculous emoji tracker, which I’ve already discussed at length.

Access Innovations has moved more into the data visualization realm as well, though we’re certainly more on the scholarly end of things. We deal with so much data from our clients that these sorts of implementations are just waiting there, ready for us to analyze. For our clients to be able to see at a glance the history of their fields, or what subjects are appropriate topics for conferences, has become increasingly valuable and we are excited about the directions visualization is headed.

Daryl Loomis, Business Development
Access Innovations