Biodiversity data as public environmental media: Citizen science projects, national databases and data visualizations

Mitchell Whitelaw, Belinda Smaill

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


Through a combination of scientific and community activity, our environment is increasingly registered and documented as data. Given the expanding breadth of this digital domain, it is crucial that scholars consider the problems it presents as well as its affirmative potential. This article, arising from collaboration between a practitioner and theorist in digital design and a film and screen scholar with expertise in documentary and environmental studies, critically examines biodiver- sity data through an ecocritical reading of public-facing databases, citizen science platforms and data visualizations. We examine the Atlas of Living Australia; Canberra Nature Map; the City of Melbourne’s Insects; and the experimental visualization Local Kin. Integrating perspectives from screen studies, design and the environmental humanities, including multispecies studies approaches in anthropology, we examine how digital representations reflect the way biodiversity data is produced and structured. Critically analysing design choices – what is shown, and how it is shown – we argue that biodiversity data on-screen provides specific affordances: allowing, encouraging or discouraging certain insights and possibilities that condition our knowledge of and engagement with living things. An interdisciplinary approach allows us to ask new questions about how users might experience multispecies worlds in digital form, and how biodiversity data might convey the complexities of an entangled biosphere, amplifying understand- ing, connection and attention amongst interested publics. We examine the visual rhetorics of digital biodiversity in order to better understand how these forms oper- ate as environmental media: designed representations of the living world.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)79-99
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Environmental Media
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2021


  • biodiversity
  • data visualization
  • multispecies
  • Australia
  • citizen science

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