Seeing Data: Are Good Big Data Visualisations Possible?

January 2014 – September 2015
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This collaborative research project aims to explore what factors impact the effectiveness of big data visualisations, using migration as a key topic. Big data are increasingly ubiquitous and are assumed to have the power to explain our social world. But despite our increasing exposure to dig data visualisations, very little is known about how they are received, whether they are effective, whether effectiveness is possible, and, if so, how effectiveness might be understood in this context. Little is also understood about the skills and literacies people need in order to make sense of them.

The project's empirical research takes two different sets of migration data used by COMPAS's Migration Observatory as a case study. Using both numerical 2011 Census data about the UK’s foreign-born population and textual data about newspaper portrayals of migrant groups, the team recruited field-leading data visualisers Clever Franke to design and produce visualisations of MigObs data. Then, it examined the reception of these visualisations among a range of other publicly available visualisations through in-depth focus group discussions with members of the general public and diaries documenting their continued engagement with visualisations seen elsewhere. It also examined how visualisation professionals impact the process of creating these objects, as well as defining what ‘effectiveness’ might actually mean.

Findings from the research will help MigObs address some of the challenges it faces in clearly communicating its data to a range of stakeholders, as well as contribute to key debates in science and technology studies about how visualisations are received.

Principal Investigator

Helen Kennedy (University of Sheffield)


Will Allen
Andy Kirk (Visualising Data Ltd.)
Rosemary Hill (University of Leeds)


Arts and Humanities Research Council