Data visualization: Mapping the topical space

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Rikke Schmidt Kjærgaard applauds a cogent guide to scientific cartography.

Atlas of Knowledge: Anyone Can Map

Katy Börner MIT Press: 2015. ISBN: 9780262028813

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Hans Rosling

A visualization maps the impact of US National Institutes of Health funding strategies on authorship networks (top) and publication output (bottom).

Flip through ten pages of this issue of Nature, and your eyes will be drawn to headlines and images. In our information-thick, data-supported world, optimal representation is key. Yet many scientists lack the tools and training to create great data visualization — to digitally parse data in many dimensions, revealing patterns and relationships in phenomena ranging from patent citations to the evolution of great scientific discoveries.

Guidance is on offer from books such as Edward Tufte's Envisioning Information (Graphics Press, 1990) and Stephen Few's Show Me the Numbers (Analytics Press, 2004). In recent years, Nature Methods' Points of View column by Bang Wong, Martin Kryzwinski and invited co-authors has tested design rules on real data sets (see Now, in Atlas of Knowledge, information scientist Katy Börner aims to bring much of this together. As the second book in a series of three, it follows Atlas of Science (MIT Press, 2010), an introduction to the power of information visualization (see B. Schneiderman Nature 468, 1037; 2010). Both books complement Börner's comprehensive travelling exhibition Places & Spaces: Mapping Science, now in its tenth year (

In Atlas of Knowledge, Börner gives guidance on how to 'map' — make visualizations of statistical, temporal, geospatial, topical and network data to aid intelligent decision-making by scientists, economists and policy-makers. One standout example is the beautiful 2011 'Design vs Emergence: Visualization of Knowledge Orders' by Alkim Almila Akdag Salah and her colleagues, which compares Wikipedia's category structure with the Universal Decimal Classification system. The book as a whole is an impressive, visually captivating resource, although ultimately it is more a tour inviting comparison and inspiration than a step-by-step manual.

In part 1, Börner first explores research at the micro level, such as the evaluation of individual scholarly merit on the basis of citation counts, prestige, internationalization and funding. She progresses by stages to multilevel and universal research, including investigating population size, life expectancy, national debts and gross domestic product on a global scale. Part 2 introduces valuable techniques for general data analysis and visualization, including how to map geospatial location, correlations and relationships, trends and distribution. Börner presents an encyclopaedia of examples of needs-driven workflow design and data scale, as well as types of visualization such as tables, charts, graphs, maps and networks.

The practical value of the book lies in bringing these case studies together to evaluate the pros and cons of different strategies in visualization design. The variety is breathtaking. An example of Hans Rosling's Gapminder visualizations, for instance, lays out global socio-economic data for 1930–2012; derived from Rosling's graph Wealth & Health of Nations, it was crafted with the Trendalyzer software that he developed for animating statistics. And Ben Fry's 'On the Origin of Species: The Preservation of Favoured Traces' ( compares editions of Darwin's magnum opus using Processing, an open-source programming language used to teach computational design. Both pack comprehensive data into easy-to-read graphics, utilizing variables such as colour, geometry, statistics and development over time.

Part 3 is where Atlas of Knowledge stands out from other treatments, presenting 40 full-page iconic images authored by pioneers of data visualization. The visionary US architect Buckminster Fuller, for instance, was — with artist and sociologist John McHale — one of the first to chart long-term trends of industrialization and globalization. The 1965 chart 'Shrinking of Our Planet by Man's Increased Travel and Communication Speeds Around the Globe' maps how the confluence of communication and transportation technologies from 500,000 BC to 1965 have conquered distance.

However, you will need to go to the Places & Spaces website to fully appreciate the complexity and interactivity of many of the twenty-first-century digital visualizations. For example, in print it is hard to locate the bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae on the 2006 'Tree of Life' map by Peer Bork and his colleagues, which shows 191 species with fully sequenced genomes. Moreover, the wealth of examples and illustrations in Börner's book is sometimes a bit too rich. With fewer images, it would have been possible to lead readers into the details, allowing us to see what is at stake without running back and forth between book and screen.

Atlas of Knowledge places itself in a long line of resources on data visualization. The focus is less on how-to than it was in, say, Felice Frankel and Angela DePace's Visual Strategies (Yale Univ. Press, 2012), but Börner's book has a place on my shelf. Whether you read it cover to cover or just browse the extraordinary examples, you put it down inspired.

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