The BCD project recently hosted four visitors for two weeks to share their experiences on a variety of subjects related to visualisation. We held a public seminar on February 15th where each spoke about their research. We recorded their talks and hope to make them available with the permission of the speakers, but there were a couple of thematic arches that take the cross-platform visualisation experiences of our guests back to the topic of city dashboards. I want to offer a couple of summary thoughts tying together some important themes from our discussions that are most relevant to the implementation of city dashboards.
Nick Lally, graduate researcher in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; Dimitris Charitos, assistant professor in the Faculty of Communication and Media Studies at the University of Athens; and Gabby Resch, graduate researcher in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto stayed with us for two weeks, and they were joined by Gareth Downey from Belfast City Council mid-week to attend the seminar. All four visitors also gave talks at the Love Data Week event organised by the Maynooth University Library. Both events were well-attended and showcased how data visualisation, visual design, and spatial representation interact with one another and influence the ways that we interpret collections of data and digital illustrations of them like city dashboards.
We had a long discussion following the talks where each speaker got to weight in on common threads. Among the topics discussed was the shared topic of objectivity/science vs design/the sublime/artistic representation of data and the urban environment. Each speaker engaged this topic with their own examples: Nick used climate change maps to illustrate the problems with illustrating uncertainty, Gareth discussed data models for city growth and the actionable outcomes that are derived from their objectivity, and Gabby gave numerous examples of authors whose visual innovations make communication more effective.
We were left considering the implications for city dashboards and to what extent they make use of these design considerations. Dashboards seem to lie on the objective side of the spectrum, with data often presented in a matter-of-fact way with no design consistency. In particular, the real-time component of city dashboards prioritise an objective perspective on urban data. Data histories are important to establish trends and benchmarks, but current conditions provide actionable resources and feedback. They must also communicate the fact that they are updating in real-time. Consistency with the non-real-time components of a dashboard display becomes more difficult, but no less necessary. For a project that engages with artists for creative data installations, our dashboards admittedly lack a design touch. Informative, yet attractive dashboards aren’t impossible – Gabby cited the Bloomberg Terminal as an example with consistency in its colour scheme and its data presentation.
The problem with a comparison between the Bloomberg Terminal and a city dashboard is that the BT is designed specifically for a single user type – an advanced financial expert looking for specific patterns and associations. Thus, those design choices are aimed at facilitating just those discoveries. Our goal is to create a useful tool for domain experts and decision makers (‘power users’) as well as data tourists simply exploring new ways of looking at the city, including those that lie between advanced and casual users. The speakers suggested in the discussion period following their talks that targeted interviews will approach an understanding of how users interact with and interpret dashboard designs. We have conducted several such interviews with users from multiple anticipated groups of dashboard users and in the coming weeks the BCD team will be considering design implementations meant to facilitate the ways that these groups of users derive meaning from the software. One design does not fit all, and so we hope that implementing a flexible and adaptable interface can create a harmony between design and objectivity in city dashboards.
Another thought touched upon by each speaker was the idea of telepresence. Nick started the thread by describing the inability of the 2D map to illustrate the sense of place that transcends Euclidean distance. Taking the map into three and greater dimensions, the ‘geographic imagination system’ seeks to represent the complex connections shared by places and the people in them. Teleportation and wormholes are implementations of space-contradicting behaviours that are possible in virtual and augmented technologies.
We discussed Dimitris’s experiences with telepresence in virtual reality with some anecdotes. During stakeholder meetings, our experience is that group members dislike virtual reality when they become dissociated from the conversations happening in physical space while they are immersed in a separate, virtual one. This is true even if the group can see the same interactions on a 2D display that the individual is having inside the headset. Telepresence can be unsettling. Not surprisingly, people often restrict their movements when in virtual reality headsets. They are conscious of their physical movements and the vulnerability of being unable to react to stimuli outside of the virtual reality. Could this feeling go beyond telepresence to a social presence? Dimitris used examples from social virtual platforms where people can explore alternate social realities. These are certainly immersive and social, which could indicate more than telepresence.
Smart, connected cities help us track specific things through the environment, and the hope is that we can better understand how to regulate city function when we know more about the city when things are happening. But the same critiques leveraged against early geographic information systems about claims of seeing and therefore knowing about places are relevant here. Data and telepresence can generate a unique sense of place, but in very different ways. Thus we are motivated to incorporate cross-platform interactions with cities and the data that are produced about them through dashboards.
Although immersive technology makes people more conscious of their physical presence, I am fascinated by how people move when in virtual reality, and I can’t help but think that the technology could be used to encourage different forms of physical expression. Dimitris is experimenting with translating physical movement into digital forms in real-time. I hope this work can be instructive toward answering some of these questions.
We could not have asked for a better group of guests who complemented one another and facilitated productive conversations about visualisation and immersion. We love thinking about these things and we will be implementing new methods aimed at making use of the perspectives that our guests shared with us.