Data + Graphics = Expanding Understanding

by Maggie Flickinger

Had the pleasure of attending Ignite Boulder 13 last week.  Outside of the much appreciated excuse to dress to the “Winter Ball” theme, and of course the happy run-ins with some TEDx & Ignite friends, I also particularly enjoyed Sterling White’s spark: Visual Storytelling with Beautiful Data.  I’m also a strong appreciator of “beautiful data” as a counterpoint to the cliche excel pie chart or bar graph.  When we expand our scope to complex issues with myriad data points, such visualization tools simply don’t suffice.  And this is where infographics enters the scene.  Entire careers are dedicated to infographics, there are multiple software programs to ease its utilization, and authors & visualization theoreticians such as Edward Tufte expound upon the principles of visualizing data.  The rules are simple: the result must not stray from an accurate depiction of real data, but must also make complex or multi-faceted issues visually accessible through clarity, storytelling, patternfinding, and (hopefully!) aesthetic appeal.  It’s this marriage of left & right brain that attracts me to infographics & data visualization.

Some are thought provoking without the use of any copy, such as the recently published world map of Facebook connections (top) or Eric Fischer’s series of “Locals & Tourist” maps, which uses Flickr’s geotagging feature to map where locals (blue) take photos versus tourists (red) (bottom, San Francisco):

Data Graphics Expanding Understanding

Data Graphics Expanding Understanding

As a counterpoint, Daytum is a web-based text / numerical focused approach which collects & displays (with clarity & appeal) any data point you feed it, from movies watched, tasks at work, fonts used, pounds lost, pages of books read, makeup of change in pocket, mood-a-day, heard christmas songs, aches & pains, colors worn – essentially anything you personally deem worth tracking.  Since your Daytum is viewable by anyone on the Daytum site –  unless you purchase the upgrade – this also proves an interesting glimpse into voluntary information sharing versus privacy issues.

Data Graphics Expanding Understanding

Some embark on a more “graphic design” approach, defining new ways of visually displaying commonplace information, such as the 2011 Pantone Calendar:

Data Graphics Expanding Understanding

Copy-based journalists & publications find themselves in the thick of data visualization as well. Good magazine boasts a growing collection of more traditional educational infographics titled “Transparency.”  One of my favorites is their info-rich depiction of Who Owns Antarctica.  I’ve also always looked forward to paging through a new issue of Mother Jones to find their most recent data visualization effort.

Data Graphics Expanding Understanding

Some of my absolute favorites take commonly used information sets and create new ways of representing them, such as the Ritwik Dey’s visual resume:

Data Graphics Expanding Understanding

Finally, what happens when visualizing data breaks free of 2D?  Nature by Numbers (top) is a wonderful example of this – and here is an explanation of the data being presented for the true geeks among us.  And anyone who stuck around for the end-credits of The Other Guys this summer was treated to an entertaining & educational take on the US financial crisis (bottom), courtesy of Picture Mill – click over to YouTube to see higher res and appreciate all that hot data.


P.S.  Who wants to take on updating the Eames’ pioneering Powers of Ten with today’s techniques & resources?  Scalability via data visualization – now that’s expanding understanding!

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