Wired UK, July ’09 – Visualizing a Nation’s DNA

Wired UK - NDNAD Spread (July, 2009)

In the spring, I was asked by Wired UK if I would be interested in producing something for the two-page ‘infoporn’ spread that runs in every issue. They had seen my experimentations with the NYTimes APIs, and were interested in the idea of non-conventional data visualizations. After a bit of research, I proposed an piece about the UK’s National DNA Database. It was a subject that interested me and I felt that there would be some interesting political territory to cover. Luckily, Wired agreed.

By searching through Parliamentary minutes, and sifting over annual reports, I was able to put together a fair amount of information about the NDNAD and I settled on a few key points that I wanted to convey with the piece. First, I wanted to somehow demonstrate how large the database is – with over 4.5M individuals profiled, it’s the largest DNA database in the world. It holds profiles for more than 7% of the UK’s population. As well as the size of the database, I wanted to show how it broke down – in racial groups, in age groups, and in terms of those who have been charged versus those who are ‘innocent’. Finally, I  wanted to talk about the difference between the UK’s population demographics and the demographics represented by the profiles in the NDNAD.

The central graphic, then, is a DNA strand with one dot for each of the profiles in the database – more than 5M! Of course, I didn’t do this by hand. I wrote a program in Processing that would generate a single, continuous strand that filled up a certain size area. I was inspired by electron microscope images that I had seen of real DNA in which it looks like a loop of thread:

The nice looping threads were rendered using Perlin noise – I had a few parameters inside the program which allowed me to control how ‘messy’ the tangle became, and how much variation in thickness each strand had. While I was at it, I colour-coded each DNA dot to indicate the database’s ethnic breakdown. The result was a giant tangle, which was pretty much exactly what I wanted:

Wired UK - NDNAD Infographic

Here, you can see the individual dots, and the colour breakdown:

Wired NDNAD Graphic - detail

The next step was to break down the big tangle into three parts – one representing the bulk of the database, one representing the 948,535 profiles that were taken from people under the age of 18, and one representing the ~500,000 profiles from people who had never been charged, convicted, or warned by police. The original image had a static centre-point for the DNA loop; to break the tangle apart, I modified the program so that the centrepoint could move to pre-determined points once certain counts had been reached. The final graphic changes centre-points three times. What was nice about this set-up what that it was easy to move and adjust the positioning of the graphic to fit the page layout. Rendering out a new version of the main image took just a few minutes.

Wired UK - NDNAD Infographic

Working with these kinds of generative strategies meant that I could explore many variations. As you can see from the graphics posted here, I went through a variety of compositional and colour changes, all of which were relatively painless. Using Processing, I built a mini-application whose entire purpose was to create these DNA systems. I also built a second min-app, which rendered out a set of pie-charts that were used to display related information along with the main graphic in the spread. I wanted these pie charts to fit in visually with the main graphic, so I created a very simple sketch to output charts from any set of data:

Wired NDNAD Pie Chart

There ended up being 11 of these little pie-charts that accompanied the main graphic. Again, by building tools, I was able to do some interesting things, while at the same time avoiding large amounts of manual labour. Just how I like it! You can see the final result in the image at the top of this post, and of course, in Wired UK – the July issue hit newsstands a couple of weeks ago. If you are in the UK, go out and buy a copy!

Perhaps the most exciting thing that has came out of this process is that I have been asked to be a contributing editor for Wired UK. I’ll be creating some more pieces centred around data & information over the coming months (look for a Just Landed spread next month), and will also be getting the chance to showcase some work by various brilliant designers & artists in the UK and around the world.

So, stay tuned…

4 thoughts on “Wired UK, July ’09 – Visualizing a Nation’s DNA”

  1. Blimey. Those images are beautiful, they remind me of fractals which were really popular in my youth. So, what did you conclude from running this? My perception is that there are way too many innocent people on the database and I cannot help but feel that this will lazy policing. I aslo think that this smacks of Big Brother.

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