David McCandless is a well-known name among urban geeks and Guardian readers. He describes himself as an author, data journalist and information designer. He creates infographics and visualisations using data for the purpose of storytelling.
Students in vast numbers turned up for his talk in November at London College of Communication. Around 80 per cent of the students raised their hands when the host, design and graphics lecturer Sarah Temple, asked who had read his book.
About a quarter said they were taking a course in this area of design. A nod, perhaps, to the growing significance of data visualisation.
Temple said McCandless was credited with single-handedly bringing back information design into the public imagination based on the success of his best selling book, Information is Beautiful. His second book, Knowledge is Beautiful, is out now.
“I am interested in ideas, interested in new ways of seeing things, interested in the truth; whatever that is,” said McCandless.In this modern information age we’re practically swimming in data. It isn’t that there’s more data, just that it’s more retrievable since it’s now stored in a myriad of places such as iCloud and electronic databases. Instead of being holed up in paper files, folders and in storage cupboards, information now flows across space like water, or credit even. The data bank is now open for business and it’s accessible in great abundance.
In 2012 2.5 billion gigabytes of data were generated every day. With mobile phone penetration growing on average ten per cent every five years, the boom is only getting bigger. There’s no turning back. The gathering and analysing of data is necessary for the the smooth functioning of everything and the well-being of businesses and people; society needs it like it needs oil. If the flow of data should be somehow restricted, then business would grind to a halt and empires could fall.
Data as commodity
The real value of data has yet to be realised. Technology is developing at an exponential rate, and we’re currently experiencing a time lag with the machines racing ahead. This is why many organisations and institutions are making costly efforts to “restructure” and “remodel”. These adjustments are required in order to deal with this massive flux of information.
At the moment data is expensive: organisations have to build teams that can gather and analyse the information. Much of the data surrounding us is publicly generated and open access, and this where creative intellectuals like McCandless are cashing in. Raw data has little value until someone comes along and collates it, visualises and presents it as something meaningful. A fact isn’t knowledge until it’s given context.
“When you gather data, then visualise and design information so it tells a story – allowing us to see something interesting or important – strange and interesting, even quite magical things start to happen,” McCandless said.Should information be beautiful?
For McCandless, information is certainly beautiful. He’s built a successful career as a writer and information designer, and he’s at the centre of a blossoming creative culture that is popularising data science: ‘data artists, journalists, programmers and business intelligence professionals.’ But there’s a perceived problem with ‘dataviz’; in particular, the type of infographics created by McCandless. ‘Dataviz’ is different from data science.
Dataviz is often treated as sound scientific study. The tarting up of figures with alluring colours and attractive graphics – the stylistic world of BigData – does have a phantasmagoric effect and receives far less critique than textual information does.
Four years ago McCandless was invited on to BBC Newsnight for a debate with the influential and opinionated designer Neville Brody, on whether or not information should be made beautiful.
Brody’s concern was that while infographics might make us “feel cleverer”, it fails to “empower” us when it comes to making serious decisions.
He implies that geeky dataviz books are a product of 25 years of Thatcherism, where culture exists solely as a money-making enterprise. It’s not radical enough for him.
McCandless, on the other hand, said his work was his reaction to his frustration at the way important figures such as money spent on war and on building pipelines are reported in the media. “They just don’t make sense unless they are in relationship to other numbers,” he told Newsnight.Clarity, not beauty
Whether or not journalists and designers should style their data with coloured blue triangles, pink bubbles or with the least style possible is a churlish argument. Unlike in other nations, in the UK we have access to much of our own data and can make of it what we like; to fight the opposition, for storytelling, uncovering hidden facts and presenting it in swirly patterns in the pages of books.
In liberal countries there are multiple audiences with widely varying interests for whom information can be designed. There’s currently more data being generated than is being harvested and a market has opened up for creatives who want to play around with the stuff and see what they can produce. Scientists have been sitting on vast mountains of data for decades and have yet to take advantage of it for the public good.
There’s a large body of research that advocates dataviz for story telling. This is because we synthesise visual information more effectively than when it’s presented as text. Not only is storytelling using dataviz a good way to preserve and transmit information, but having a visual element also helps to create memories and make meaningful connections between facts and situations.
To be fair to McCandless, his information designs are lucid. The structured way he organises the topics and categories give previously isolated facts some context and relevance. His audience isn’t necessarily made up of the type of anarchists and revolutionaries that are looking to pump up on cold, hard, bare facts before storming the Bastille and tearing down the monarchy. Perhaps they just want to be informed, do interesting work and make positive contributions to culture.
[pullquote align=”right”]Brody’s concern, that by making information beautiful we depoliticise its message, is valid.[/pullquote]
Still, it mustn’t be ignored that we’re living in tumultuous and austere times, where the gap between the haves and have-nots is steadily widening. Brody’s concern – that by making information beautiful we depoliticise its message – is valid.
It’s also important that those who might feel socially excluded and disenfranchised know that they are also able to take advantage of the new technology, online tutorials, free software and reams of open access data currently available and, like McCandless, see what magic they might be able to produce.
Surely, a better informed public can only improve the current order of society? It’s only a matter of time before the corporations and big businesses really understand the commercial power of the internet and find a way to own it. And somehow we’ll find ourselves enjoying the fact that the internet has become MacDonaldised.
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If you’re keen to make your own data visualisations, these websites will help you to familiarise with the latest online tools and get started.
VizSweet: VizSweet is a set of “high-end tools” built by David McCandless which allows users to create ‘beautiful’ and ‘interactive’ data visualisations.
Creative Bloq: Creative Bloq has rounded up 36 of the best tools for data visualisation available on the web. These tools have been designed to make it easy for first-time users without computer programming knowledge.
Fast Company: This post by online business innovation magazine, Fast Company, lists five of the best libraries for building data visualisation, which can help those starting out.
Data Science Toolkit: If you’re really serious about data, Data Science Toolkit by Pete Warden offers an comprehensive bundle of the ‘best data-sets and open-source tools for data science.’
For the latest developments in data science, Pete Warden‘s blog is definitely worth following for a more comprehensive insight from within the tech world.
Images courtesy of David McCandless