Flying through data in a planetarium

Because sometimes data visualisations need a bit more space

Synwell / Flickr

One of the things I often feel when I’m trying to visualise data it is that I just don’t have enough space.

Take the interactive part of this article for instance. There’s a limit to how big visualisations like that can be, and deciding what information to leave off is tough. In the end, I decided that if it was going to fit on the page then it would have to do without a way of seeing which industry had the most fatal and major accidents.

The call was made easier by the fact that the figures were the total number of injuries in a year, rather than a rate per 100,000 workers.

Without knowing how many people work in each industry, the figures can’t really be compared. But even so, it would have been nice to be able to easily and quickly see which job was the most deadly.

(Incidentally, if anyone wants to do that there is injury data per 100,000 people here. The industries are grouped together more in this dataset though).

What I was pining for was a bigger screen, but if I’m totally honest, even I wasn’t thinking about something on the scale of a planetarium.

On the big screen

The 12-metre diameter dome of At-Bristol Science Centre’s new 3D planetarium is big enough for pretty much anything. A pair of 4K projectors provide the images, and most of the time it’ll be doing what planetariums tend to do: entertaining visitors with a whizz around the planets and distant galaxies.

In its downtime though, the dome will get to practice its hobby: visualising data.

“It’s being used every day by visitors or school kids who come in to see astronomy,” says Phil Winfield, Chief Executive of At-Bristol. “But when it’s not being used for that, it’s an asset where we can explore data visualisation.”

The new planetarium is plugged into a gigabit-speed network that links it to the University of Bristol – part of a project called Bristol is Open.

As well as being an experiment in super-high speed networking across a city, the Bristol is Open project also makes publically available data on anything from energy consumption to traffic congestion in the city.

“There’s all sorts of data being collected around the city, but it’s generally in the form of spreadsheets or tables,” says Winfield. “We’re going to take a look at how some of that can be visualised, in the planetarium.”

That sounds like it would solve my space problem nicely, but Winfield says that there’s more to the dome than just size.

“It’s a fully immersive experience,” he says. “Whether it be a researcher, or someone presenting financial data to potential clients, I think it’s a very high impact experience to immerse yourself in the data.

“You could do something similar with an Oculus Rift, but you couldn’t share it with anybody. Being in that shared space means you can comment on observations of the data.”

The planetarium only opened at the end of April, but already plans for visualisations are being made.

“We’re looking at having a computer model of the city of Bristol that you could fly through [and] overlay data on, such as the energy consumption of buildings, or air quality,” says Winfield. “The ability to see that data, analyse it and show it off to others is very powerful.”

The process of visualising data on the dome is largely the same as any other digital project, but according to Planetarium Media Production Officer Seamus Foley, there are ways in which the particular requirements of the dome make the development process a little trickier.

“It is quite a different environment to a flat screen,” he says, “and it’s a stereoscopic planetarium, so you’ve got to somehow generate 3D geometry from your data. I suppose that’s the challenge.”

It’s very early days for the project, but I for one will be excited to see people rise to that challenge. Got any ideas of what you might like to do with a planetarium screen? Stick them in the comments below.