Graphic partnership brings life to council data

14 July 2010

Data visualisation techniques that generate sophisticated graphics could bring a fresh dimension to communications and decision making by public bodies like local councils, according to research completed for the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

The vizLib project presents data in a graphic format to show how people use public services such as libraries. The project was led by Dr Jason Dykes, senior lecturer in geographic information at City University London, in partnership with Robert Radburn, research manager at Leicestershire County Council.

Dr Dykes says: "The project shows how cutting- edge graphics - some of which are quite abstract and sophisticated - can be applied practically, to assist organisations like local authorities in the analysis and use of large, complex datasets. There was a process of knowledge exchange between the university and the local authority, and between academics and officials. We have expertise in graphics, while they know about public bodies and the sort of data they can generate."

Local authorities now have access to huge amounts of electronic data from items like library cards. This gives them the opportunity to consider the behaviour of service users in ways not previously possible. In the past profiles were drawn up on the basis of census data, creating issues with the sheer volume of data, and this can make traditional forms of presentation inadequate. The kinds of maps and graphics produced in the vizLib project - novel but informed by scientific findings - can help.

The vizLib project analysed data collected from 450,000 users of Leicestershire's 54 libraries, over a two year period. The graphics, based on postcodes, mapped factors such as the behaviour of users from different areas, the usage profiles of individual libraries, the impact of geography on usage, and patterns of competition between small and larger libraries.

Mr Radburn said: "The project has given us an unprecedented understanding of the way in which the people of Leicestershire use our library services" and that this would inform policy decisions. He has also found that "the presentation of information through the graphics inspires much greater interest in both policymakers, such as councillors, and members of the public."

Dr Dykes, who argues that 'graphicacy' should be recognised as an essential skill alongside articulacy, numeracy and literacy, says: "Graphics are particularly effective where there is a spatial dimension to an issue. The problem often has two dimensions, and the graphic helps people to think in two dimensions."

While libraries were used in the initial project, the techniques are transferable to other services and datasets. One area under consideration is the daily flow of children to and from schools; this information could inform where to concentrate traffic calming projects.

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Notes for editors

  1. This release is based on the findings from 'vizLib : Developing Capacity for Exploratory Analysis in Local Government - Visualisation of Library Usage Data' funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and carried out by Dr Jason Dykes at City University London.
  2. A follow-up project, funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government, is developing online applications to present information about Leicestershire services, including a satisfaction survey, to the public.
  3. Methodology: Graphics were developed at City University London's giCentre, one of the largest UK research centres focussing on mapping, analysing and visualising information with a geographic component, on the basis of 450,000 records of weekly library usage in Leicestershire.
  4. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s planned total expenditure in 2009/10 is £204 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.