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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

'What is Going On?' Seeking Visual Cues Amongst the Flows of Global Finance


Computation lies at the heart of finance, making numbers the ‘natural representation' of financial markets. While of course not displacing numbers, new techniques of visualisation that turn number into pattern are currently being explored by financial actors in an effort to make better sense of financial market developments. This paper reports on initial research into how such techniques are being developed and employed in various market settings. It begins by locating the increasing requirement for such visual techniques in the context of today's markets where financial instruments and their associated risks are increasingly entangled, thus making the task of figuring out just what is going on that much more difficult. The paper then offers a brief review of the key work to date by social scientists on visual techniques and financial markets as a way into thinking about how present techniques to re-visualise market data can also be thought of as working to shift the ‘contours of financial knowledge.' The penultimate section draws on interview material to explore the example of visualisation techniques developed recently for use in the US Treasuries markets. It sets out how the software is being designed to enable market participants to excavate key market developments visually in a search for added and valuable insights into unfolding market action, thus turning numbers into actionable knowledge. The paper ends by suggesting a number of issues to be investigated further if social scientists interested in the making and preparation of financial markets are to gain a fuller appreciation of just why, and with what consequences, there is, in contemporary financial practices, a turn to techniques of visualisation.

Insights Paper