by Sarah Block, Library Communications
Computerized contours of varying greens, blues, and oranges form Sean Ahearn’s depiction of Shark Bay, an Australian oceanic wilderness that few visitors are known to have set foot in, and that the Rosenstiel marine geology geophysics graduate student recently explored for six weeks.
The changing colors on the map represent information from sediments he’s collected throughout the region, which thrives as host to some of the oldest living fossils in the world.
And yet it isn’t so much the geochemistry itself, but the visual strategies used to present his work, that make Ahearn’s project a core element of UM Libraries’ This Space, This Place, an exhibition that grew out of the Libraries’ role as co-host to the Places & Spaces: Mapping Science exhibition, which debuted on campus September 4. Planning for the arrival of the nationally touring exhibition spurred efforts to acquire equipment and furniture, redesign spaces, and create the “local” parallel exhibition, which has taken on a life of its own.
“This Space, This Place shows how the Libraries are forging partnerships and initiatives that enhance the depth and delivery of research,” says Dean of Libraries Charles Eckman. A wide range of locally created or collected data visualizations will be featured on the first and second floors of Richter Library throughout the fall along with half of the world-traveling collection of images and all 3-D and interactive elements of Places & Spaces.
Visualization for tool created at the Department of Computer Science to aid in the study of ancient manuscripts.
Maps and diagrams featured in This Space, This Place communicate ideas from across the academic landscape, including fields of medicine, geography and regional studies, communications, and political science.
“It’s about pushing the boundaries of data visualization,” says Education and Outreach Librarian Terri Robar, who with colleague Lisa Baker helped coordinate the installation of Places & Spaces and lead the organization of the local exhibition.
Innovative techniques can be found in displays such as the video map at the Digital Media Lab, which uses satellite imagery and immersive original oceanic footage to shed light on the endangered reefs and channels of Biscayne National Park.
A touchscreen map presented by the Cuban Heritage Collection allows viewers to explore Cuban cities, towns, and countryside at the turn of the twentieth century. The Collection curated the historical photos, which were then geo-located with the assistance of the Libraries’ geographic information systems (GIS) consultant Chance Scott.
Ahearn’s project, displayed on the second floor, also involved the use of GIS tools to create the topographical-like maps marking his progress towards an environmental profile of Shark Bay. Using the program ArcGIS, he was able to visually shape and categorize the extensive data he had collected in the region. “The goal is understanding conditions that form this very unique marine environment,” he said.
A simulation from a project at the Miller School of Medicine showing the activation of a drug for treating spinal cord injury.
Education & Outreach Librarian Lisa Baker says that GIS programs are growing in popularity among ’Canes conducting research with a geographical component.
“Most researchers are aware of the different visualization resources available to them, but they are still often surprised by what these tools can do for their own research,” says Baker, who supervises the GIS Lab at Richter Library and leads workshops during the year introducing researchers to various mapping software.
UM Libraries offers a range of data visualization and GIS resources, including books, workshops, and one-on-one assistance at the GIS Lab.
The Libraries system is planning to expand GIS and visualization services with upcoming recruitments for a GIS services librarian and technician, Digital Humanities librarian, and visualization librarian.
But the wide range of visualizations featured in This Space, This Place also demonstrate methods used by UM researchers, outside of GIS, to transform ideas that are well beyond the realm of common knowledge into images comprehensible by a general audience.
An image inside the case at the library’s entrance captures a simulated game of soccer, demonstrating the workings of an artificial intelligence program called Robobiz, a program developed at UM’s Department of Computer Science. The case also features a microbiology-themed simulation from the Miller School of Medicine of a drug that has been developed for treating spinal cord injuries, and an innovative climate model created at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.
“Because we are visual beings, visualizations can allow for comprehension and engagement in a topic with little to no background knowledge of it,” says Education & Outreach Librarian Bill Jacobs, who specializes in science resources.
Facsimile of a map of St. Louis (originally published in 1874), from the General Map Collection.
Viewers need not be familiar with Thomas Carlyle, for example, to engage with a Digital Humanities project related to the life of the Victorian-era author. Data mining of letters sent and received by Carlyle is charted in the visualization created at the Department of Computer Science, highlighting significant writing patterns discovered in the correspondence. “It’s important to be able to communicate this type of research with collaborators in other areas of the academic community,” says Mitsunori Ogihara, Associate Dean for Digital Library Innovation who’s had key involvement in the project.
The exhibition also examines the evolution of visualization tools and techniques. Visualizations from the General Map Collection (the largest map collection in South Florida) explore the remarkable past of data visualization, from topographic and road maps to geologic, historical, and thematic. “We have maps from every part of the world and even other planets,” says Robar, who oversees the Collection.
Displays from the Libraries’ Special Collections highlight an array of historic materials that demonstrate the collective knowledge of early mapmakers. “Many of the earliest maps were simply the graphic results of hearsay, of travelers’ accounts and narratives interpreted by mapmakers who had never actually seen the continent of North America,” said Special Collections Head Cristina Favretto.
“Bootlegger’s Map of the United States” (1926), from Special Collections.
In a case featuring a map from the 2004 book Eccentric Florida: A Space Alien’s Guide to the Sunshine State, recorded mermaid sightings, shark teeth discoveries, and lesser-known landmarks are a few of the elements that describe the points across the Florida landscape.
“It’s meant to inspire,” says Robar, speaking of the many types of data that has been visualized and featured in the exhibition. The scope is as wide as the data the librarians and library staff who came together to create This Space, This Place work with year-round to help researchers access (and sometimes distribute). And the possibilities for presenting it, Robar says, are endless. “This is about thinking outside the box,” she says.
This Space, This Place will run through December. The exhibition is made possible in part by the Lynda and Michael Gordon Exhibition Program.