Extract from a visualisation of noise levels associated with a major motorway junction. Credit and copyright Arup.

+ Enabling local communities to explore proposed development work in digital virtual environments increases their understanding and engagement.

Do you digest data more effectively if it’s presented graphically? Would you trust data presented outside of traditional tables and graphs to make important decisions on subjects such as your building maintenance, the cost of public transport or whether or not you object to a road being built?  

I believe that innovative visualisation of data can help us to engage with data and improve our decision making process. Quite simply, informative, engaging, graphical representations of data make for effective communication. 

Data visualisation can take many forms: from infographics that provide a concise visual representation of cumbersome pages of data or text to detailed interactive time series visualisations that enable users to navigate through spans of time at the click of a mouse, or explore virtual 3D digital environments. 

We’ve used the latter successfully for several public consultations on major projects. Using innovative visual tools, users can explore existing and proposed locations in digital virtual environments and gain an understanding of the invisible infrastructure and information flows that keep them functioning.  

I’ve been involved in a number of large-scale infrastructure projects for Arup where we’ve used data visualisation to help local residents and communities understand the impact the project will have on them. It is my experience that the greatest levels of engagement are achieved when people can use tools that they’re already familiar with to discover and explore why we’re doing something and how it will benefit them. For example, using widely used online, interactive maps (like Google Maps) or exploring virtual environments using an Xbox controller to see how a place or area will be affected. 

For one project, we enabled people affected by a highway project (the A465 in South Wales) to interact with a 3D visual representation of our latest thinking on the project design. This gave them a much greater understanding of how it might impact the landscape familiar to them. 

Live building information can also be displayed graphically to give people a simple summary of the building’s current performance and environmental impact. Graphical visualisations can help people relate building metrics to real world equivalents – comparing current and historic electricity usage to the number of computers currently on, for example. 

Would you rely on graphical data visualisations as part of your decision-making process, or do you think they’re too far removed from the safety of the numbers they represent?