Visualising group energy

Blog written by Hen Wilkinson, School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol.

The project was funded by the annual Jean Golding Institute seed corn funding scheme. It emerged from Hen’s ESRC funded PhD research, supported by the SWDTC and School for Policy Studies.

Collaborative working is central to tackling the world’s complex problems but is not easy to sustain

Power dynamics and inequalities play out in all directions, in the relationships between individuals just as much as between organisations. By making ‘hot spots’ visible in group interactions it becomes easier to acknowledge and work with points of conflict that will inevitably arise and to deal with them in a creative and sustainable manner.

While researching ‘the space between’ individuals and organisations, qualitative researcher Hen Wilkinson and data scientist Bobby Stuijfzand developed a new methodology using computer software to visualize energy shifts in group interactions. Listening to audio recordings of groups working together on a task, the impact of nonverbal elements in the group interaction was striking, with dynamics between participants influenced just as much by the nonverbal content of laughs, silences, sighs, asides and interruptions, as by the words spoken.

Visualizing shifts of energy – a new approach in qualitative research

Following this observation, the ambition to visualize these tangible shifts of ‘energy’ in the groups took hold. To date, little attention has been paid to generating computer visuals in qualitative research, so creating a rigorous, systematic visualization of energy shifts was lengthy, challenging and exciting. For more detail on the rationale and methodology we developed over the course of two years and to view the final interactive versions of the design, see Visualizing energy shifts in group interactions. Among the many challenges we faced were finding and adapting an instrument to use with small and interactive qualitative datasets; establishing interrater reliability; identifying what was meant by ‘energy’; deciding which nonverbal elements to visualize; and how to present the resulting data.

On the website we present four 5-minute visualized extracts of group interaction, each drawn from a different group discussion, two of which were held in the UK and two in the Netherlands. Each extract of data is five minutes long, made up of 2.5 minutes of interaction either side of a central mid-point clash or strong challenge in the group. The five minutes of data were then scored by a team of raters listening independently to audio clips of the extract divided into meaning units, which are shown as ‘topic shifts’ on the visualizations. In this way, the qualitative data was converted into numerical values for three main variables – levels of mood and engagement as they shifted over a set period of time.

The support of seed corn funding from the Jean Golding Institute allowed us to work on the presentation of the visualizations, from realising an interactive website which showed how the numerical data we used was reached to refining the aesthetics of the design to encourage maximum engagement with the graphs and clarity of understanding in the viewer. Initial images were generated using ggplot2, a data visualization package for the statistical programming language ‘R’ – see Initial visualizations.

Initial visualizations

Following the generation of these first images, we explored the significance of data presentation through extensive design research, working with designer Derek Edwards. This drew on multiple sources in a visual exploration of accessibility, of the impact of colour, of multi-layered research and into the use of pattern, texture, animation and shape in displaying qualitative data. Slides from the design research show some of the various considerations we were reflecting on:

Design considerations

The initial images generated with ‘R’ were then refined using D3.js, a powerful and well-regarded software library used extensively to create interactive data visualizations on the web. Refining the aesthetics of the design was important to the project, both in terms of encouraging maximum engagement with the graphs and in terms of data clarity. Each graph contains multiple layers of information, from group participant engagement levels to the overall mood of the group, points of topic shift in the group discussions and dropdown text boxes of the verbal interactions between participants at any topic shift point.

The example below – visualizing a strikingly bad-tempered interaction – uses the final design we settled on (see Visualizing energy shifts in group interactions) once all considerations had been taken into account. The ‘energy line’ running through the centre of the graph is a composite of engagement and mood results and is cut across by a second nonverbal indicator of group dynamic – incidents of laughter illustrating both use and function. As outlined in the methodology sketch, we developed a categorisation for types of laughter heard in this study ranging from cohesive (green) through self-focused (yellow) to divisive (red). In this group, laughter can be seen to anticipating the shifts in mood from positive (green) to negative (red) and back again.

This project has sparked considerable interest, both in terms of its early-day implications for qualitative and mixed methods research and in terms of its potential as an applied tool for teams, organisations and collaborations to use. Further funding in 2019 through an Impact Award has enabled the interdisciplinary team working on the project to embark on further developments and connections.

We are fully aware of the work-in-progress nature of this approach and are very interested to receive feedback, comments, ideas for future applications from anyone out there! If you would like more information on this visualization project or have a comment to share, please contact the lead researcher, Hen Wilkinson, via

The Jean Golding Institute seed corn funding scheme

The JGI offer funding to a handful of small pilot projects every year in our seed corn funding scheme – our next round of funding will be launched in the Autumn of 2019. Find out more about the funding and the projects we have supported.