Cognitive and psychological science insights to improve climate change data visualization


Visualization of climate data plays an integral role in the communication of climate change findings to both expert and non-expert audiences. The cognitive and psychological sciences can provide valuable insights into how to improve visualization of climate data based on knowledge of how the human brain processes visual and linguistic information. We review four key research areas to demonstrate their potential to make data more accessible to diverse audiences: directing visual attention, visual complexity, making inferences from visuals, and the mapping between visuals and language. We present evidence-informed guidelines to help climate scientists increase the accessibility of graphics to non-experts, and illustrate how the guidelines can work in practice in the context of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change graphics.

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Figure 1: Example of an IPCC figure and aspects that might limit accessibility to non-experts.
Figure 2: Conceptual overview of the process of graphic comprehension and approaches to improving accessibility.
Figure 3: Example of visual attention for an IPCC figure for a non-expert viewer trying to interpret the graphic (measured using eye tracking: first 15 seconds of data shown).
Figure 4: Schematic of properties known to direct visual attention.
Figure 5: A cognitively inspired version of an IPCC figure.


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This work was supported by a PhD Studentship from the School of Psychology, University of East Anglia (UEA) to J.H. and support from the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Centre (SILC), Temple University (SBE-1041707 from the National Science Foundation) including a travel grant to J.H. We would like to thank members of the Cognition Action Perception research group in the School of Psychology, UEA for their participation in a workshop to explore the scope of the Review, and members of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, UEA for their feedback on how the presented guidelines could work in practice.

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J.H. and K.R.C. outlined the scope of the Review with input from T.F.S. and I.L. The manuscript was drafted and prepared by J.H. with critical feedback from K.R.C., I.L. and T.F.S. All authors contributed to editing of the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Jordan Harold or Kenny R. Coventry.

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Harold, J., Lorenzoni, I., Shipley, T. et al. Cognitive and psychological science insights to improve climate change data visualization. Nature Clim Change 6, 1080–1089 (2016).

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