Hi, I’m Ben Ennis Butler (aka beneb) and I’m a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Arts and Design at the University of Canberra. My research revolves around building interfaces that encourage open ended exploration and discovery within cultural heritage collections. You can find aspects of my research and website development work on this site. Enjoy.

Playing with Complexity

In August 2011, just after officially starting my PhD, I gave a paper at the Australian Council for University Art and Design Schools 2011 conference. The paper, Playing with Complexity: An approach to exploratory data visualisation, was written by Sam Hinton, Mitchell Whitelaw and me.

It examines how ideas of play can be used to help a user engage with, and enhance, interactive data visualisations. We argue that the discovery of order within complexity is a pleasurable experience – an experience one can only have if they get the opportunity to play with the data itself. We therefore suggest that there are good reasons to acknowledge the concept of play in the design of interactive interfaces.

The paper has just been published online over at the ACUADS website.

This was the first conference that I’d ever been to, and I was the first speaker on the first day. Mitchell and Sam weren’t able to be there, so I got to do the honours. The paper went down well and here are some points raised in the discussion following it:

  • visualisation is about opening collections to different audiences who might not otherwise be looking at this kind of collection.
  • There was concern about social connectivity – if all this research work is being done online then what happens to those unique conversations you might have with someone when you bump into them in the library (e.g. browsing the stacks and finding something fascinating that you wouldn’t have otherwise found)
  • Can visualisation be used for actual research or is it strictly for playing about?
  • Discovery is interesting but potentially limited – what to do with that information?

All in all, it was a good day and probably quite a good way to kick off my PhD!

Visualising the Visual

Visualising the Visual: Australian Prints in the National Gallery of Australia is the title of the work I produced while completing honours in creative communication in 2010. Information about the project, my exegesis, and lots of fun pictures can be found here.

PhD blast off!

It’s the first of August 2011, and that means I’ve officially started my PhD.

What do I intend to do? Well, see below:

Research Proposal

Tentative title:
Escaping the search box. Data visualisations of cultural collections.

Ben Ennis Butler

As technology has developed our cultural institutions have aimed to make their collections more accessible to the public, largely through the development of websites where the search interface is the primary access point.

However, what if we want to explore an entire collection, rather than trying to view a particular part of it? It is necessary to change the way we approach the data. By using data visualisation techniques and new web technologies I intend to explore different ways of accessing cultural collection datasets and demonstrate how different delivery platforms can enhance accessibility. Through practice-led research I plan to develop an interactive interface or system that will encourage exploration and discovery without being constrained by the limits of commonly used search technique. I envisage a prototype that can be applied to multiple collections.

I hope that I can make an original contribution to the body of knowledge by building a system that allows the user to discover relationships that we might not have been aware of previously. In other words, a system that forces one to question the data; think about why things are as they are; and to further understand the data and its complex relationships. Crucially I want to build something for non-researchers, for the everyday person. The aim is to open up the collection and peer inside, something every person should be able to do regardless of their location or background.

Data visualisation is an emerging field in contemporary cultural research. Researchers have begun to recognise the potential of visualisation, for example, Lev Manovich describes research into ‘visualising cultural patterns’ and cultural analytics. (2007) Daniel Keim notes the strengths of ‘visual data exploration’ as a way to understand large datasets. (2001)

Only a few data visualisation based works have been produced for cultural institutions to date. These include George LeGrady’s dynamic visualisations of activity in the Seattle Central Library; Jeanne Kramer-Smyth’s ArchivesZ (2007) project which focused on scope and availability of records in Archive collections; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s ArtScope (2009), which displays all the works in their collection on the screen at once, and more recently the Visible Archive, by Mitchell Whitelaw who visualised aspects of the National Archives of Australia collection.

I anticipate attending local presentations mounted by Canberra’s national cultural institutions, as well as specialist conferences such as the Museums and the Web (held in North America), where presentations of new industry developments and experimental techniques and sites are showcased. Given that little data has been published on visualization in the cultural context, such conferences will be provide an important source for viewing new developments and discussing ideas with colleagues. No special resources or equipment will be required.

I recently created a number of data visualisations of the National Gallery of Australia’s prints and printmaking collection. The aim of my Honours project, Visualising the visual: Australian prints in the National Gallery of Australia, was to examine how data visualisation can enable exploration and discovery of digital images in cultural collections, without using search. I produced three large printed visualisations of the collection showing chronological and gender distribution, and a basic interactive component that provide an introduction to the data and an insight into its richness. I received first class honours for this project.  My research provides a sound base for future development, I have only just began to explore the potential of data visualisation and how it can benefit cultural collections. The contextual and theoretical research evident in my exegesis and the technical and design aspects of my practice will enable me to extend my project significantly.

Mitchell Whitelaw and Sam Hinton, staff from the Digital Design and Media Arts Research Cluster at the University of Canberra are leaders in the emerging field of data visualisation. I want to work on a project that will potentially change the way we access and understand cultural collections. The University’s ability to foster research that is both intellectually and technically demanding while also having practical outcomes is one of its great strengths. It is something I want to be a part of.


Keim, D. A. (2001). Visual exploration of large data sets. Communications of the ACM, 44(8), 38-44.

Kramer-Smyth, J. (2007). ArchivesZ: Visualizing Archival Collections. Retrieved November 8, 2010, from http://archivesz.com/

LeGrady, G. (2005). Making Visible the Invisible. Retrieved November 8, 2010, from http://www.mat.ucsb.edu/~g.legrady/glWeb/Projects/spl/spl.html

Manovich, L. (2007). Cultural Analytics: Analysis and Visualization of Large Cultural Datasets. Retrieved from http://www.manovich.net/cultural_analytics.pdf

Stamen Design, & SFMOMA. (2009). ArtScope. SFMOMA | Explore Modern Art | SFMOMA ArtScope. Retrieved April 8, 2010, from http://www.sfmoma.org/projects/artscope/

Whitelaw, M. (2009). The Visible Archive. Retrieved from http://visiblearchive.blogspot.com/