The art of data

Daniel works in the field of data communication. That is the practice of making data – literally numbers – into something that informs day-to-day management decisions. Of the bookInformation is Beautiful by David McCandless, Daniel says, “This is the most intuitive way to present data. Anyone can use Excel to produce a graph, but graphic design skills are required to create images that communicate so much more than just the relationship between the x and y axis.”

Information is Beautiful is the coffee table book of your dreams. It tackles issues and subjects as diverse as endangered species, annual government spend, alternative therapies and wine vintages and presents them in a way that is both functional and beautiful. It might seem a bit late in the day to take about McCandless’ book, which was published in 2009; however, this book marked the entry of data visualisation into the mainstream, and since then it has only been gaining in applications, sophistication and status. Crucially, data visualisation breaks down barriers between high and low forms of access to information, bridging between the popular and intellectual spheres.

Data visualisation has its origin in the 17th century, when cartography (the mapping of the earth) that had begun in the ancient Greece, developed into a much more accurate science. Quantitative data presented in a graphical way instantly has more power; Florence Nightingale’s ‘rose diagrams’ (pie charts) of the 1850s, which demonstrated the link between deaths in the Crimean war and poor hygiene, were able to gather public support for reforms far more effectively than the most persuasively written article. Conversely, a contemporary example dealing with a similar subject matter is The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone by Richard G Wilkinson and Kate E Pickett; this book presents a convincing case for reducing the gap between rich and poor; however, the way it presents its data lacks a certainje ne sais quoi that perhaps a graphic designer could have provided.

The phenomenon that we understand today as data visualisation has developed through the twin disciplines of graphic design and computer sciences. It has applications in the world of work, leisure and study; sometimes applying to all three. The way in which we are ‘plugged in’ to the internet means we need to consume new knowledge fast, and have at least some of the analysis done for us. McCandless’ most well known graphic design is the Billion Dollar-o-Gram. Speaking at the Ted Global Oxford in 2010, McCandless said that this image ‘arose out of frustration’ with press reportage relating to billions of dollars. He went on to say that without context, billions of dollars ‘don’t make any sense…and the only way to understand them is visually and relatively’.

McCandless’ graphics have appeared on mugs and posters as well as in exhibitions. He has worked with organisations including Tate Britain and MoMA and at Wellcome Collection, a free science and art exhibition venue in London, where one of his graphics was used in their exhibition High Society. The graphic presented a breakdown of the money made by the drugs trade and the amount spent on the war against drugs; it was an effective way of breaking down the myths surrounding this complex issue.

It is more usual to access data visualisations on-line; many fun applications help users to navigate the world wide web by mapping music, blog topics or image albums. Of the hundreds of thousands of data visualisations available on-line, some are more successful than others, the best ones have immediate impact – sometimes the information they present is surprising or even shocking – as well as providing meaningful analysis. Most significantly, the fields of popular science and education are using data visualisations combined with interactivity and animation, to communicate important new research. Professor Hans Rosling in The Joy of Stats, a BBC4 documentary programme from 2010, used an animated graphic to plot the life expectancy in 200 countries in relation to their wealth – this is well worth a watch on YouTube. Rosling is the co-founder of Gapminder, a venture that promotes a ‘fact-based world view’ and uses data visualisations to engage audiences with global issues.

We may be about to see the refining of data visualisation into a discipline in its own right (not simply existing on the fringes of graphic design, communication, information science and art) as the inaugural competition to celebrate global excellence launched in April this year. The judging panel includes senior curator at MoMA Paola Antonelli, Guardian Datablog editor Simon Rogers, McCandless and blogger and journalist Maria Popova. There are many tools already available to help individuals produce their own data visualisations (including IBM’s Many EyesTableau Public and Google’s Fusion Tables); and an ever greater expectation of dynamically presented information (due to interactive smartphone apps and the roll out of HTML5). This may be the year when data visualisation explodes.

First published April 2012

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