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Executive Summary and Recommendations

A workshop to discuss "Graphics, Visualization and the Social Sciences" was held on 8th and 9th of May at Burleigh Court, Loughborough University. It was attended by 24 people from 16 institutions, was funded by JISC through the Advisory Group On Computer Graphics (AGOCG) and organised by Dr Anne Mumford. The programme was put together by Anne with Professor Mike Batty (UCL) and Professor David Unwin (Birkbeck).


The aims of the meeting were:

to survey current work in social science making use of graphical computing and visualization techniques.

to evaluate the potential of the available technology to enhance teaching and research in social science.

to explore the pictorial data requirements of the social sciences.

to make recommendations to AGOCG on the infrastructure necessary to support these developments.


Although there was a bias towards geography and planning, also present were sociologists, statisticians and service providers. Although concern was primarily for the social sciences, many of the themes discussed and the recommendations have wider application.


Issues Discussed

The discussions at the workshop took place in both plenary sessions and parallel groups with all participants making presentations and participating in group discussions. Some of the issues which emerged included:


graphics and visualization tools can enable assimilation of data and aid in understanding processes. Relative to their potential, these tools are currently underused in the social sciences.

social science data are different to scientific and engineering data - the data are often qualitative or categorical and are seldom measured on a continuous scale. This means that different techniques and representations are needed.

in the social sciences, pictures can provide input data into the research process.

access to pictures, images and graphical presentations in a digital form online is not widespread (though initiatives such as the JISC Electronic Libraries programme (eLib) and the Knowledge Gallery may provide useful resources in the future). Image libraries must be accompanied by full details through metadata if they are to provide a good research tool.

the WWW is an important tool for researchers. It provides access to resources. It also provides the potential for assisting decision support through online surveys. Systems are available to allow discussion and exchange of views and these may also be of interest to supporting debate, for example in social theory.

graphics and visualization tools give us the potential for different and individually authored views on information. Windows showing different information (perhaps a map and the accompanying statistical information from the census) can be linked and graphically manipulated to assist in understanding underlying processes.

there is a need for social scientists to be more aware of, and comfortable with, the technology so that the techniques available become a tool to assist in understanding social processes and not a barrier. Too much energy is spent on overcoming the technology and not in gaining understanding.


Case studies of the use of graphics and visualization in the social sciences were presented at the workshop and are detailed in the papers in section 2 of this report.




It is a tradition that AGOCG workshops emerge with some firm recommendations for action, and this event was no exception. This helps to steer the work of AGOCG and through them enables recommendations to other funding bodies who may be able to allocate resources to address the proposals made. The major recommendations from the workshop are as follows:



It is important to raise the status of graphics and visualization in the social sciences and to ensure researchers and teachers are aware of the potential of technologies for data representation and understanding, data collection and decision support. This could be addressed through the relevant CTI Centres and the ESRC Resource, Programme and Research Centres.


The special nature of social science data needs to be recognised.



A review of current work in the use of graphics and visualization in the social sciences throughout the world should be undertaken.


A review (based on social science data requirements) of tools within the current statistical and visualization packages should be conducted.


Training and Awareness

A training course on the use of visualization techniques within the social sciences should be run and widely promoted.


We need to ensure that there is high awareness of resources and services available now (SOSIG, Data Archive, QUALIDATA, AHDS, Knowledge Gallery etc) and encourage funding bodies to take account of the needs of social scientists in their service development.



A follow-up workshop should be held which examines the "Role of the Visual" in various strands of social science which would be discussed in parallel sessions covering topics such as: understanding the past; social processes; economic processes; decision making.


A series of case studies reflecting the potential and use of visual techniques should be put together to reflect good practice. These should be available online and on paper.


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