As we increase our ability to capture detailed information about a wide range of subjects, large and complex datasets are becoming increasingly

common. At the same time, advances in computing power and storage are allowing us to perform intricate analysis of this information; however, the most complete understanding of these datasets can be best achieved through a combination of computer analysis and human interpretation. An ability to visualise these large and complex datasets is something that can greatly help with these ambitions.

One of the oldest large and complex dataset is the “tree of life”; to phylogeneticists this provides the complete map and relationships of all life on the planet and for decades, researchers have sought ways to visualise this information. For Dr James Rosindell, this is a problem that he too has considered during the course of his career.

Fractals are an unusual type of geometric object because of the way in which they scale as you increase and decrease them in size. In normal geometry, doubling the width of an object results in an overall increase in size of two to the power of the dimension. For example, if you double the width of a square, its area is four times greater (22); if you double the width of a cube, its volume will be eight times greater than the original (23). However, for a fractal, if the width is doubled, the spatial content is increased by a power that is not a whole number. Fractals typically have patterns that infinitely repeat regardless of the scale at which we view them allowing us to zoom in and out but still see what appears to be a similar representation. A few years ago James had also been considering how these fractals might be used to visualise huge mind maps of information, an idea which would lay dormant for some time.

During a visit to Charles Darwin’s Down House with Luke Harmon (a colleague from the University of Idaho) they took a stroll around Darwin’s thinking path with the ambition to draw inspiration for new ideas. It is unfortunate that none of the ideas that they conceived on the path that day have come to fruition yet, but less than two hours later the topic of tree visualisation arose and from that James was able to suggest how his fractal mind map might used to provide a solution.

After many years of hard work and with the assistance of some funding from the NERC IAA, James has developed the OneZoom Tree of Life Explorer. One Zoom, exists as a website enabling users to explore the “tree of life” which to date has received over 850,000 page views from over 300,000 unique users but the team has also developed a portable touch screen device which has featured in many exhibits around the globe including the Beautiful Science exhibition at the British Library.

The OneZoom team have not stopped there:

  • the team are developing an API that will allow other datasets to be visualised using the tree structure
  • they are working to provide more and improved OneZoom displays at a number of museums around the world
  • OneZoom is applying to become a registered charity in the UK to enable it to further its public outreach activities.
  • An app is available to download on Android
  • There’s a lot more to come in 2015 so watch this space.

Finally, the team’s latest venture has adapted OneZoom technology to field of Geneaology, where a new website ZoomPast enables users to create, share and view a wide variety of personal and public family trees.