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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

The Backdrop: A physical data visualisation

We built a physical data visualisation, called The Backdrop, for Nesta’s Government Innovation Summit.

The Backdrop shows the years of cuts in local government funding, where the most deprived areas have faced the largest cuts. And while essential services like social care have received some protection, spending on perceived discretionary areas like cultural services have seen some of the biggest reductions. The visualisation aims to give a physical form to the scale of the challenge and changing roles facing local government across England.

Deluged by data

While the link between deprivation and cuts to local government spending is not news, it is a difficult relationship to explore. Deprivation is measured for more than 30,000 separate areas in England. And there are over 350 local authorities, each responsible for spending and reporting on a myriad of different areas (from adult social care to culture). That all adds up to a lot of data and a large communication challenge. At Nesta, we have been examining how physical data visualisation might help us to explore these types of large datasets.

A picture of the physical visualisation

What is a physical data visualisation?

A physical data visualisation, or a ‘data physicalisation’, is simply a physical object that conveys data. While data physicalisations are not yet a common communication tool, they are by no means new. A Galileo Thermometer is one simple example of a data physicalisation.

Conferences and workshops offer an ideal space, and provide a ready-made audience, in which to show physical data visualisations. They can be of any size, ranging from an installation that takes up an entire wall, to one that is small enough for a goody bag. For more examples, you can explore this list of data physicalisations maintained by Pierre Dragicevic and Yvonne Jansen.

Compared to digital visualisations, the ability to touch a physical data viz can help to aid impact. Researchers have found that “moving visualisations to the physical world can improve users’ efficiency at information retrieval tasks”. And crucially “the efficiency of physical visualisations seems to stem from features that are unique to physical objects, such as their ability to be touched and their perfect visual realism.”

Perhaps most importantly, physical data visualisations let us share the experience of viewing data. Groups of people can view the visualisation together and can discuss the insights that they observe. And in a conference setting, data physicalisations can help to spark conversations between attendees, and facilitate networking.

Given the explosion of data in public policy, it is important that we continue to innovate in data-communication. Data-driven insights are only as effective as the data visualisations that deliver them. By continually experimenting with new approaches in visualisation, we hope to both hone our own methods and inspire others.

A picture of the physical visualisation

A guide to viewing The Backdrop

We called this visualisation ‘The Backdrop’ because it summarises the backdrop against which we held the Government Innovation Summit: approaching a decade of cuts in local government spending.

To show the relationship between deprivation and the cuts to local government, we created over 350 paper pyramids. Each pyramid represents a local authority in England, including district, county, metropolitan, unitary and London boroughs. The authorities were arranged in the shape of England.

The colours on a pyramid convey the distribution of deprivation in that authority, where pink denotes areas in that authority that are among the most deprived in England, while blue represents the least deprived. This information comes from the 2015 Index of Multiple Deprivation Deciles.

Each side of the pyramid shows the change to a component of local government spending in that authority. These are percentage changes, based on net expenditure in real terms since 2010/11, and as published by the National Audit Office.

A picture of the physical visualisation

Two sides of each pyramid show the change in total revenue spending power and central government funding. The Institute for Fiscal Studies have shown that the cuts in spending power were not evenly spread across the country. They found that cuts have averaged 31 per cent for the most deprived fifth of council areas, compared to 17 per cent for the least deprived. The most deprived council areas were more reliant on funding from central government and so the cuts to this funding represented a higher percentage of their total revenue.

The remaining two sides of each pyramid show changes in spending on adult social care and cultural services in each authority. We chose to contrast the cuts to these two areas in order to highlight the stark choices faced by councils since austerity began. England’s ageing population makes adult social care a growing pressure. Councils have a statutory duty to provide care services from cradle to grave, while the majority of cultural services – known as “Cinderella services” – are often viewed as discretionary. Although libraries, museums, parks and arts funding are vital for the social and cultural fabric of communities, it is understandable that when forced by funding cuts to make a choice, cultural services will be squeezed.

Across all local authorities in England, cultural and related services have been cut by 35 per cent, while adult social care was cut by just under six per cent (both based on net current expenditure in real terms between 2010/11 and 2016/17; source: NAO). Earlier this year, the County Councils Network warned that because upper-tier county local authorities are now spending on average 65 per cent of their budgets on adult social care and children’s social service alone, county leaders are being forced to redirect their funding from discretionary service areas like arts, libraries and culture, in order to fulfil their care obligations.

A picture of the physical visualisation

If this trend continues, it will represent a significant change in the role of local government. At the beginning of the decade, councils were viewed as place-shapers, pursuing the work that turns a collection of services, institutions and assets into a shared local identity. A decade later, the visualisation shows that councils are beginning to provide only the most essential services: social care, picking up the bins and fixing potholes.

Looking ahead

Much of Nesta’s work in government innovation is a response to the pressures of austerity, and despite political rhetoric about its end, austerity will continue to be the day-to-day reality for many local authorities. Innovation can be part of the answer and Nesta has recently launched a Handbook of innovation methods. Some of these methods have already been used to tackle financial pressures, such as the Innovate to Save programme which was pioneered by Nesta’s Y Lab in Wales. We hope that these tools can help others and spark ideas for the possibility of a better future.


Cath Sleeman

Cath Sleeman

Cath Sleeman

Head of Data Discovery, Data Analytics Practice

Dr Cath Sleeman is the Head of Data Discovery.

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Tom Symons

Tom Symons

Tom Symons

Deputy Director, fairer start mission

Tom is the deputy mission director for the fairer start mission at Nesta.

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