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Visualization Environments

Show and Tell

Problems and Solutions

Pyramid Exercise


Visualisation in the Social Sciences Workshop

Advanced Visualisation and Virtual Reality in the Social Sciences.

Weetwood Hall, University of Leeds,

9-11 September 1998


Chair - Dave Unwin, Birkbeck College London

Introduction to Visualisation in the Social Sciences - Dan Dorling

Dan Dorling presented a summary of a review of visualisation in the Social Sciences carried out by himself, Scott Orford and Richard Harris. The cover of this report shows a complex graphic developed by German researchers to demonstrate world trade links. In fact, the graphic is so complex, that it is difficult to extract any useful information from it. This was used to highlight the authors' feeling that there is 'too much visualisation and not enough social science'.

What is social science? The authors accepted that definitions of which subjects made up the Social Sciences could be varied, with the subjects usually assigned to social science faculties in British universities including economics, geography, politics and sociology. For the purposes of the report they included several additional subjects areas, and gave some example uses of visualisation:

  • Geography - maps, GIS
  • Planning - CAD, VR
  • Psychology - graphics and VR within experiments
  • History - time geography
  • Politics, Economics and Sociology - graphics (e.g., from SPSS and SAS), visualisation of networks
  • Social Statistics - visualisation for data analysis
The full report contains a bibliography of over 2500 articles, with many recent papers being available over the WWW. The number of papers now available over the WWW is significant, and it is becoming the dominant form of research dissemination. Of these papers, the majority have been contributed by geographers, because there has been a diffusion of visualisation techniques from the sciences through to social sciences, with those subjects that had the closest links to the sciences, such as geography, making most use of visualisation. Other subject areas are now making more use of graphical and visualisation techniques.

The authors found that there was much overlap and repeated work because researchers were not aware of work that had already been done or which is currently being undertaken. Because there is no 'central core' to the research, they felt there was a clear need for organisations such as AGOCG and interdisciplinary meetings within the social sciences.

Current Visualisation Practice - Paul Ell and Humphrey Southall

Paul Ell and Humphrey Southall presented the results of their survey of visualisation tools in the social sciences. The survey was conducted by means of a questionnaire, multiple copies of which were sent to the heads of department of all social science units in third level teaching institutions in the UK, 780 in total, to be forwarded to interested staff. The questionnaires were also available on the WWW ( Word, ASCII or HTML, and email questionnaires were also sent.

In order to encourage a wide a response as possible, including users who might be using computer graphics without being aware they were using visualisation tools, responses were specifically invited from users of:

  • Spreadsheets - e.g., Excel, Quattro Pro
  • Statistical software - e.g., Minitab, SAS, SPSS
  • Image processing software - e.g., Photoshop, Lview
  • Computer graphics software - e.g., CorelDraw, UNIRAS
  • Cartographic software - e.g., GIMMS
  • GIS software - e.g., ARCINFO
Over 200 completed questionnaires were returned, mostly using the online form. Only 76 people responded to the written letters that were sent to departments. The limited response rate may have been due to a number of factors including:
  • Some of those contacted did not considered themselves to be within Social Sciences
  • Requests were not asked for from people not using visualisation tools, though this might have given useful information into the number of people using visualisation in the social sciences
  • The questionnaire was fairly long


Feedback was received on 57 different software packages used in over 30 subject areas. The greatest number of replies were received from geography departments, followed by sociology, then politics, economics and archaeology. The most common tools used in geography are GIS tools, particularly ARCINFO and ARCVIEW. Outside geography the most common tools were SPSS and Microsoft Excel. However, it was felt that in many cases those tools were being used for data storage and quantitative analysis rather than for their visualisation or graphics capabilities, indicating that visualisation was not generally used in the social sciences outside geography, except for simple graphs. A number of reasons were suggested for this:
  • The cost of software
  • Problems of running new software on older machines
  • A lack of appropriate software
  • Lack of time for people to learn and explore new techniques and tools

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