Dressing Up Data
Two Thursdays ago an eclectic gaggle of trendy designers, programmers and artists convened together in a large room at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in central London. Undercuts and thick-rimmed glasses (including my own pair) were out in force.
The crowd had assembled to witness the Information is Beautiful Awards (sponsored by consultancy firm Kantar). This was the inaugural event of what is intended to be an annual celebration of the best in international data design.
The quality of entries, by BBC stalwarts down to lone freelancers, was extremely high. I went along in order to gauge how data visualization has impacted media and society, and what it might mean for the future.
"Data viz" has been a popular topic among techies for a few years now and is pushed hard by media publications such as the Guardian since data visualization promotes top-down editorial control on a story while simultaneously encouraging reader engagement. Readers, of course, often get co-opted into sifting through big datasets and contributing to the findings so it's not difficult to see why the Guardian views its data blog as a key asset.
I was struck by how many young designers were represented at the ICA that night. I chatted to several of them, including Deniz Cem Önduygu whose visualization "Metallica on Stage" won the popular vote award as well as the Bronze for data journalism. He said he was surprised the crowd around us wasn't younger still since everyone seemed to agree that it was a proactive youth movement, of kids who can design, code and innovate all in the same breath, which was driving the popularity of contemporary information design.
Data was cool, and full of potential. I was shown, by another designer, an interactive diagram on a mobile phone app which, in animated glory, explained erectile dysfunction. The diagram looked like something out of a futuristic medical journal - it was a serious and very thoughtfully produced piece of work.
Indeed, so compelling is data visualization at times that it can help a news story go viral without sacrificing important details for the sake of sensation. Take for example this article about Google which appeared a few weeks ago on technology website The Verge.
Not too far down the page you'll find an interactive time-line graph of Google's increasingly voracious appetite for start-up tech firms. The attention this graphic received online via social media was stunning.
In an age of WikiLeaks and data logging, information threatens not just to be mis-used, but also under-used. It takes time and resources to plough through large datasets, but this quickly becomes less of a barrier as small design firms and big organisations contribute to software and online tools which make data interpretation more accessible to members of the public. The Oxford Internet Institute, for example, is currently running a big initiative to do just that.
One of the designers I met and talked with explained that their firm creates a lot of projects on a self-initiated basis, by trawling through open datasets and coming up with methods of visualizing them either as portfolio pieces or potential pitches to clients and publishers.
The fact that they are able to sustain a model like that proves that visualization is something that currently benefits from a buoyant market. And since the basics are now such a piece of cake, it also suggests that the public is just a few steps away from being able to play around with and investigate these numbers themselves. Humble bloggers are, naturally, leading the trend.
As I write this piece, news has broken of Tesco's plans to allow its customers access to their shopping data via the Clubcard Pay Scheme. Theoretically, one would therefore be able to see information on any purchase ever made with Clubcard. Visualized, this could be fascinating, but perhaps also dangerous.
The privacy issues associated with certain kinds of data, about which I have written before, are not negated by the appearance of neat charts and graphs, and shopping lists are a good example of sensitive information that could be used in profiling or identity theft.
One thing is certain, though. Big data is only going to get bigger. Whenever I think about that inevitability I'm struck with a sort of urgency, compounded with the knowledge that there are very savvy people out there who know how to navigate these numbers and make them meaningful.
But as a democratically enabled populace, surely it's only logical that people would begin to familiarise themselves with visualizations and decide what kind of data we think should be open and what closed. The designers of today are laying the groundwork for us now. It's our job to take note and, if possible, get to grips with those datasets ourselves.
Projects like Raspberry Pi and the Oxford Internet Institute's big data programme suggest that a more digitally literature population might also be more data literate.
My final thought is that data visualizations don't make decisions for people, they're more like rhetoric for data since they can be used to persuade. It's difficult to argue with cold figures, so that's why knowing how data can be manipulated is so important. Just look at the economic assessments being bandied back and forth by the US Presidential candidates this year. Each party chooses to highlight a set of figures which bolsters its own agenda.
That that is possible suggests that people, on their own terms, need to have access to and be able to interpret these figures better and more easily. It's potentially a very empowering feature of a technologically enabled populace, but the availability of tools, facts and reason has never been quite sufficent to drive a free nation towards being a consistently inquisitive nation also. A surprising number of people, even in the age of the web, like to be told what to believe.
So will a genuine, empirical desire to get one's hands dirty with data evolve among members of the general public over coming decades? Will a young generation of programmers and designers lead the way? It's difficult to know. The one thing that's really hard to visualize accurately is the future.
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