Data visualization, trivia and creativity

I’m in London this week for, among other things, a course by David McCandless, author of Information is Beautiful and Knowledge is Beautiful, and pioneer of original data visualizations. It is an excellent workshop, which stimulates parts of the brain you don’t normally get to use (whatever your profession), and helps you to see concepts and information more clearly. What I most got out of it was the ability to ask better questions. Instead of “how have print book sales correlated with e-book sales?”, which is slightly ordinary and generic, how about “which category of book sales has been most impacted by e-books, and how has that progressed over time?”. Instead of “how is climate change affecting temperatures?”, how about “how has the temperature range varied by country over the past 20 years?”. Instead of “which bus lines have the worst delays?”, how about “what are the bus delays caused by, what time of day do they happen, how many people use the bus at those times, and how does all this vary over the course of a day/week/month?”. You can find out more of David’s work at Information is Beautiful, and I thoroughly recommend his TED talk.

The concept is so simple in retrospect. We are biologically predisposed to favour images over text. We survived by being able to detect changes in patterns, movement amongst the reeds, berry-coloured spots in the bush. The language of image is much more universal than any other, and a visualization can transmit so much more in a short period of time than can densely packed numbers or verbose text. So why has it taken us so long to realize that we can do so much more than pie charts and bar graphs?

In part, because of technology. Data as a snapshot in time is interesting, but if it can be easily updated it becomes so much more useful. Good old Excel charts did the trick quite efficiently, but were not exactly grabbing. Adding colour and nifty labels helped. But it was all still rather flat. Faster chips and more efficient programming gave us more powerful processing and more flexibility in presentation. And the trend of interdisciplinary studies and collaborations added a layer of relevance to a broader audience. Mix in some individual creativity and personal style, add the increasingly rapid spread of ideas via the Internet, and you get a data visualization revolution.

from Information is Beautiful - by David McCandless

from Information is Beautiful – by David McCandless

As a total numbers geek (Applied Maths major, and a CFA), this stuff is thrilling. But it’s also exciting and relevant for anyone interested in arcane trivia (who gets more press attention, Han Solo or Luke Skywalker?), culture (the relative success of every major film of the past 7 years), politics (imagine being able to display the differences between the parties in an easy to understand visual… oh, wait, David’s done that), economics (thought you knew what a billion dollars looked like? think again), dogs (what do you mean, the English Spaniel isn’t bright?), social media (there’s a fascinating breakdown of sites by user gender balance)… the list could go on. Check out his website for some fun graphs, charts and whatever-you-call-thems.

from Information is Beautiful - by David McCandless

from Information is Beautiful – by David McCandless

McCandless isn’t the only one doing stunning things with data. Polygraph has some amazing interactive graphics about culture-related themes (“What is the definition of punk?”, “How popular is older music?”, “Which rappers have the broadest vocabulary?”). The New York Times and the Washington Post are producing some slick interactive graphics. FiveThirtyEight, a blog/online magazine born for data journalism, is producing some cool stuff. Andy Kirk runs an impressive blog and website about data visualization. There’s some incredible creativity going on in the field.

from The New York Times

from The New York Times

But McCandless seems well on his way to becoming the “rock star” of the discipline. His visual style and his sense of humour make his talks and workshops anything but dry. His belief that we can all be better data journalists is contagious. And his approachability and “professorial” air left us all encouraged and inspired to get out there and create. I walked away with pages of scribbled ideas for information that I didn’t even know that I wanted to know.

Did you know that lipstick sales go up in a recession? That toast is much more popular worldwide than cereal as a breakfast tool? That Easter and just before summer see the highest concentration of Facebook status updates from “in a relationship” to “single”? That very little of the story told in “The Imitation Game” really happened? That “awesome” is a more popular word than “badass”? These are just some of the tidbits we gleaned from the stream of graphs he showed us as examples. Data really is very, very interesting. Especially if you can express it well.