Visualising Complexity

Complex, multidimensional, interconnected data can be extremely difficult to communicate effectively even using classic visualisation tools. Gone are the days when we can just draw a straight line through a 2D scatter graph. Take a look our visualization of the network of researchers in the Scottish Government’s Strategic Research Programme (SRP) as an illustration of just how complicated things can get! The image shows the complex connections between the researchers involved in the SRP (the bigger the node or circle – the bigger the level of interaction and lines represent linkages).

Directory or Expertise

The SRP is a vast programme of research involving the work of hundreds of researchers across a variety of topics such as Natural Assets, Productive and Sustainable Land Management and Rural Economies, and Food, Health and Wellbeing. Recognising the complexity involved we began developing a directory of expertise where we hope to make the linkages between the science and scientists much easier to navigate for us all. Hopefully this kind of information will become more readily accessible via the SEFARI web-site next year, but until then a little more information can also be found in the project’s blog.

The Directory of Expertise is only one example of visualising complex data we and our colleagues regularly deal with though. There are actually many teams working across SEFARI on ways to communicate a variety of complex data, and we recognized we all could benefit by sharing our knowledge and practice more widely. Therefore, we decided to apply to the SEFARI Responsive Opportunity Fund to create a collaborative community in this important area, and we were delighted that our idea to develop a workshop on ‘Imaginative Tools for Visualizing Complexity’ was awarded funding in September 2017.

The Responsive Opportunity Fund is designed to support new and collaborative knowledge exchange ideas which enhance impact and add value. Projects need to be inter-disciplinary, cross-institutional, show creativity and demonstrate how they will improve the communication of our work.

The workshop has the goals of:

  • establishing a network – enabling people from across SEFARI to get to know each other’s work better,
  • exposing participants to new approaches and tools to visualizing data,
  • providing an opportunity to have a go at using the approaches and tools,
  • and increasing awareness of diversity and accessibility issues when preparing visualizations.

Whether the data are challenging to visualize and communicate, or whether there are methods and approaches to visualization in a particular area of research that could be used more widely, then this network is designed to help and our ideas are already gaining interest both within and external to SEFARI.

The workshop is planned for 6th February 2018 with guest speakers Sophie Warnes (Office for National Statistics) and Prof Jessie Kennedy (Edinburgh Napier University) and we’ll be sure to blog again later to let you know how the event went, but in the meantime and for more specific information about this activity please follow our project blog.

Dr Gary Polhill & Dr Paul Shaw (The James Hutton Institute), Dr Mike Spencer & Joshua Bird (Scotland’s Rural College), Bram Boskamp (Biomathematics & Statistics Scotland).

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Game of Cones

Enlisting people’s help to keep our trees healthy was the task of a team representing SEFARI at the recent science showcase event UnEarthed, held at Dynamic Earth Edinburgh. The event was put on by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to engage the public with environmental science through hands-on activities, and was the largest NERC showcase to date with over 7,000 people visiting between 17 – 20 November.

Unearthed.JPG

The showcase was targeted at families and school groups. Two of the four days were advertised to schools in areas of deprivation, and grants were available for transport costs in order to remove the main barrier to attendance.

As well as communicating the science UnEarthed was very much about showcasing best practice in public engagement. All proposals went through a selection process and the support provided by NERC at all stages was exceptional.

So why do we need the public to care about and act on tree health? In short we need more people to be on the lookout for pests and diseases and reporting them so that the authorities can take appropriate action. The UK plant health risk register has around 1,000 threats listed, but the worrying statistic is the rate of growth at between 5 – 10 new pest threats per month. This onslaught of pests and diseases is a product of the modern world where goods and people move ever more freely around the planet.

This threat is particularly relevant to Scotland. We have a strong forestry sector and in recent years around three quarters of all the trees planted in the UK have been planted in Scotland. The Scottish Government also has ambitious targets to increase tree cover for a variety of reasons including economic and wildlife benefits as well as the capture of carbon from the atmosphere. To get people thinking about these issues, a group of seven research institutes including three from SEFARI – Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, SRUC and The James Hutton Institute – came together to develop the forest management computer game CALEDON which is free and available to download at home.

Bringing CALEDON to UnEarthed, along with other hands-on activities, was the latest public engagement event for the PROTREE project, a part of the UK’s Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Initiative, which developed the game working with games designers at Dundee-based Hyper Luminal Games. The game puts the player in charge of a virtual forest and they have to make decisions and develop strategy to keep their forest healthy. Planting and felling to maintain a viable business is the basis of the game, but it is how you decide to deal with the inevitable pests and diseases that will determine your success or failure. The game provides tips on strategy and has an encyclopaedia you can explore for more information.

The game was very popular with children and some fierce competition to record high scores suggests that the game does succeed by being fun to play. The game also provides an excellent stimulus to discussion of the issues, as even just getting across the message that trees do get sick is a step in the right direction. UnEarthed was a great opportunity to speak to teachers about using the game in the classroom and for those who wanted to get more involved there was also information available on citizen science initiatives including the Observatree monitoring project, the reporting tool Tree Alert and the OPAL Tree Health Survey.

Dr Max Coleman, Science Communicator, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Representing SEFARI at UK Parliament

Leaving the European Union could have major repercussions on a wide range of environmental and land use concerns within Scotland, and across the whole of the UK. Whilst some of these issues may seem complex, it is increasingly recognised that SEFARI contains a wealth of expertise which can contribute to such discussions. Of course our place is not to delve into the politics, but to use our research and expertise to provide an evidence-led platform for discussion.

To this end, I was recently invited to represent SEFARI at an event in the UK Parliament, organised by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Parliamentary Office for Science & Technology (POST).

Davy's Blog

The meeting brought together a small number of recognised scientific experts to discuss such issues with the Houses of Commons and House of Lords committee’s subject advisers.  Representatives from the Environmental Audit; Environment, Food & Rural  Affairs; EU, Energy &Environment (Lords); European Scrutiny; Exiting the EU; Public Administration & Constitutional Affairs; Scottish Affairs; Welsh Affairs; and Women & Equalities committees were all present on the day, reflecting how integral environmental issues are to a wide range of parliamentary interests.

There are clearly a range of environmental concerns (such as addressing farmland biodiversity declines and tackling diffuse pollution at a catchment scale) which are common across the UK. But, my remit on the day was to highlight some of the additional environmental issues which were likely to be much a higher priority in Scotland, when compared to the rest of the UK.

I began by stressing that land managers have a huge role to play in helping to tackle environmental issues on behalf of wider society, and consequently it is essential that future mechanisms can appropriately support the different types of agriculture practised in Scotland. Leaving the European Union could present a real risk to the more vulnerable livestock systems in Scotland’s mountains and islands, especially those High Nature Value farming systems which cover over 40% of Scotland’s agricultural land and where the continuation of agricultural management is considered to be of high nature conservation importance. Any abandonment of farming in those areas could have a detrimental impact on the rural communities, habitats and wildlife species associated with them.

I also highlighted ambitious climate change targets as a major driver of Scotland’s environmental focus, with the Scottish Government proposing further ambitious revisions to our existing targets. Key targets include: obtaining 50% of heating, transport and electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030; to restore 250,000 ha of degraded peatlands by 2032; and a desire to markedly increase woodland cover in Scotland beyond the current 18% land cover. All these targets are aimed at reducing Scotland’s overall greenhouse gas emissions to 90% of 1990 levels by 2050 and (in recent revisions) to 56% of 1990 levels by 2020.

I was able to make the point that all these environmental issues cannot be seen in isolation from each other, and that actions to mitigate for one issue have the potential to be beneficial or have adverse impacts for other issues. That’s why there is a pressing need to understand the systems underpinning, and trade-offs associated with, any land management practice or land use change. This means landscape scale policies and practices must be designed and implemented accordingly.

The meeting was also attended by:

Sasha Leigh, Head of Policy Partnerships, who provided an overview of NERC’s new Environmental Evidence for the Future initiative which will seek to define, prioritise and address the medium- to long-term knowledge gaps in the environmental science evidence base post-Brexit;

Andy Jordan, working on political aspects of Brexit at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, who outlined a number of legislative and logistical challenges to dealing with environmental issues in the run-up to Brexit; and

Nick Wells, Centre of Ecology & Hydrology, who outlined the challenges and gaps in understanding associated with a range of cross-UK environmental issues, such as support for environmental management by farmers, achieving good ecological condition of waterbodies, addressing air pollution, ensuring biosecurity associated with plant and animal imports and maintaining and enhancing biodiversity in protected sites.

I have engaged quite a bit with MSPs in the Scottish Parliament in recent years and provided evidence a number of times to what is now the Environment, Climate Change & Land Reform Committee.  It was very interesting to be able to highlight where the Scottish environmental perspective can be quite distinctive when viewed through a UK parliamentary lens.  It was therefore very pleasing to see that SEFARI was able to bring something different to the discussions.

The meeting was a great opportunity for SEFARI, one we hope to build on as we contribute where we can to discussions around Leaving the European Union.

Davy McCracken

Professor of Agricultural Ecology and Head of Hill & Mountain Research Centre Future Farming Systems

On SEFARI to the Emerald Isle

SEFARI has a crucial role in ensuring that the right research and expertise gets to the right people, at the right time and in the right format. This model has to deliver for policy makers, commercial interests and individuals alike – such challenges are shared the world over in the space between research and decision taking. SEFARI also has a role to better internationalise Scottish Government funded research on environment, food, agriculture and land.

While that means developing ways to take our messages beyond Scotland, it also opens up the opportunity for us to learn from others. This week we have a great example of an event which helps in both those challenges. Two key SEFARI staff, Dr Kenneth Loades, and Dr Philip Skuce are heading to Cork, Ireland, for the latest in a series of high-profile events exploring how the transformative power of science and technology can be better aligned to meet societal challenges, and how research can better underpin policymaking.

Cork 4.jpg

Dr Loades, the SEFARI Sector Lead for Soils and Crops, and Dr Skuce, the SEFARI Sector Lead for Livestock, are taking our own experiences to the table by using examples of interaction with the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament. Dr Loades said “This conference gives us a platform to show what Scottish research on environment, food, agriculture and land can offer, but also gives us the chance to learn from others trying to improve how science can better underpin policymaking and scrutiny”.

The 3rd European Technology Assessment Conference will explore key issues such as:

  • Health, ageing and wellbeing;
  • Food security, sustainable agriculture, marine and maritime research and the bio-economy;
  • Secure, clean and efficient energy;
  • Smart, green and integrated transport;
  • Climate action, resource efficiency and raw materials; Inclusive, innovative and secure societies.

The conference is to be attended by a rich variety of those who carry out research in these areas, those who act as knowledge brokers, and those who require accurate and reliable research and data. This includes parliaments, governments, research institutes, universities and academies from across Europe and beyond. Dr Skuce said “We expect to learn valuable lessons on how others meet the challenges of ensuring policy makers and those with scrutiny roles have the best access to the right information and expertise. We will also learn how others measure the impact of these types of activity – all with a view to putting new ideas into practice at home”.

This trip delivers against another agenda too, perhaps one more traditionally aligned to the research areas delivered by SEFARI – the same venue, University College Cork, is also hosting an All Island Agri-Food Summit this presents the opportunity to take Scotland’s message to an Irish audience, and to learn about challenges and opportunities in the Irish context.

Graeme Cook ¦ Director ¦ SEFARI Gateway