Cambridge University Design / UX group

Computational Information Design write-up


Ben Fry – Computational Information Design

Making sense of huge datasets! (Microsoft Research, Cambridge, 23.04.2009)

Well, that was a pretty impressive talk. Visualising the information contained within massive sets of data is a big challenege, and something that researchers in a range of fields face every day. Designers can help to bridge the gap between aesthetics and functionality, and help make information usable.

Fry started off with a brief introduction of himself and his work, explaining that his back ground is in both computer science and graphic design (joining the two), and he showed us some examples of his products, including Anemone, which organically maps web site usage, and Valence, which “draws” the relationships and structures inside large bodies of data.

Part of chromosome 22, in a 3px typeface

He moved on to talk about his excitement at the announcement of the first release of the mapped human genome, back in 2000/2001. His response to that was something like “Wow! That’s amazing! Er… so what does it look like?!”. With millions of pieces of data, it is very hard to visualise something like that, so it was necessary to be creative coming up with ways to communicate the information those data hold.

He has turned a design eye to various complex things. Apart from dealing with something like the whole human genome, even representing how the genetic code works is worth redesigning. There are lots of graphics out there to illustrate this, but Fry’s redesign is really very elegant.

I don't know why, but "U" represents "T" in this visualisation

As part of his Isometric Blocks project, he produced the HapMap (map of haploid genotypes), used on the cover of an issue of Nature:

Great. So what has this got to do with design and the user experience?

Often these are new visualisations of existing data, striving to improve on what has been done before. Other times, they are completely new. But in either case, Fry is trying to allow the people who seek information from these data able to see the wood and the trees at the same time.

In his work, he said, he tries to find a balance between the aesthtics / design side of things, and the funcitonality / useulness side. Too much of the former, and it becomes pretty but useless. Too much of the latter, and tools can become so mundane and bland that their usability is decreased.

I certainly felt that this is something that all of us could relate to – finding that balance in the projects we work on.

Genomics and bioinformatics

for the bioinformatics people in the audience…

As mentioned above, Fry has done a lot of work in collaboration with people researching genomics, genetics, and bioinformatics (inevitably!).

Genome Valence is another genomics projec Fry has developed

This might be old news to you (some of the projects are several years old, certainly), but his work has included visualisations of clustered microarray data; the Handheld Genome Browser and a 3D browser, called Strippy; creation of illustrated alignments of human + other mammalian genomes; he worked with Michele Clamp (ex-EBI, now at the Broad Institute) on gene identification in the EMBL gene catalogue, which involved creating novel views of each gene on a single sheet of paper, allowing for rapid checking and revision; and so on…

Darwin’s Origin of Species

A final mention went to something that Fry has in the pipeline… a visual representation of Darwin’s revisions to his rather famous book, “On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection“. So the audience will ultimately be able to browse pieces of text from each of the six editions of The Origin, side-by-side, and see the revisions Darwin made. For example, with additions in blue, and deletions in red.

Inspirational stuff.

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