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Biodiversity is in crisis, we know this because we have datasets from around the world that record observations of wildlife over decades. In the UK we have a rich history of monitoring the environment, and have a wealth of observations from which to get an understanding of how species are changing over time. However for some species the data are limited, meaning that our estimates of the species’ trends is very uncertain, and for other species we have no data at all, we simply don’t know what is happening to them.

What it does

In this piece I work with biodiversity trends data from EIDC to both explore the uncertainty in species trends, and data gaps, in an emotive way. I build a physical work of art to explore these themes using data.

How we built it

A range of skills were needed to create this work. The data (Outhewaite et al 2019, EIDC) were handled in R, and manipulated in to wordclouds with very specific characteristics. All design work was carried out in vector design software. This was used to draw the many individual pieces that make up the picture and the frame. Material selection was important for a high quality finish, which comprises clear acrylic, 3mm Birch plywood and genuine 4mm walnut veneer for the frame. Finally the designs were imported in the laser design software and formatted for cutting. Tests had to be carried out on every material for engraving characteristics and cutting settings, and finally cut on a 90W CO2 laser cutter. All of this work, end-to-end, was carried out (in great haste) by Tom August during the 48hours of the CDE hackathon

Challenges we ran into

The wordclouds took a long time to generate both because the datasets were very large, but also because the specifications needed downstream, by the laser cutter, meant that colour size and font had to be controlled very precisely.

Creating the acrylic/plywood 'image' in the centre of the frame was very difficult. The cutting have to be accurate to 0.05mm to ensure the perfect fit of these pieces together. This took numerous iterations to get right.

Accomplishments that we're proud of

I'm super proud of the whole thing. It was a lot of work to do in a very short amount of time. handling the data and getting the text into the right shape and format, with uncertainty represented in size and colour for the laser cutting machine was really worth getting right. I'm also really happy with how the engraving came out, the look of the dissolved text, and my custom made frame. The idea to add the title 'State of Nature' was an after thought, but I think is a really fun addition

What we learned

From the science side I learned more about word cloud development and more about uncertainties in these data. From the art side I learnt to trust my gut, be patient, and in a choice between cutting corners or quality, always pick quality (the materials were not cheap!)

What's next for An Incomplete Picture

I hope that it will form part of an art exhibition that we are planning for the DECIDE project (funded under CDE). I hope it will act as inspiration for artists, to think about how they can work with data, for scientists, to think about data uncertainty and gaps, and for naturalists to consider how they can help to complete our incomplete picture.

Built With

  • affinity-designer
  • lasercutter
  • lightburn
  • r
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