Bill Rankin's map charts race in Chicago.
Data visualization leverages the universal grammar of images. When it succeeds, it delivers its impact concisely with elegant design and transmits complex data with split second-efficiency. Numerous blogs are dedicated to data visualizations, such as Information is Beautiful, Flowing Data, Cool Infographics, and Visualizing Economics. The Twittersphere was buzzing last July with this striking Clay Shirky-inspired “Cognitive Surplus Visualized” representation of hours of TV watched plotted against hours spent to create Wikipedia. Companies like IBM employ researchers and computer scientists at their Visual Communication Lab, whose Many Eyes research experiment encourages the public to “upload data, visualize it, and talk about their discoveries with other people.”
We like data visualization because it can be used to support the information needs of a community, turning a complex set of data into an easily readable form.
News outlets have capitalized on this well, and their use of data visualization has become more and more complex, evolving from fairly simple and passive pieces like the USA Today Snapshot to highly interactive items like the New York Times’ Stop, Question, Frisk map that illustrates the locality of NYPD frisks based on suspicion of a committed crime. With the help of its readers, the Los Angeles Times has begun an ambitious project to map all the neighborhoods of L.A. based on crime, demographics, schools, and news. During the 2008 election cycle, CNN’s John King gained notoriety for his interactive U.S. map that allowed him to posit various electoral outcomes by county and state with his “magic wall.” (Saturday Night Live had some fun with CNN’s map.)
And there are even more interactive examples. The Deficit Commission received much attention last week about their recommendations for reducing the national debt. Don’t like what they proposed? Or, at least, want to think more clearly about the options the commission had in making its proposals? Using the New York Times Budget Puzzle, you can take a turn at navigating the difficult policy trade-offs of whether, for example, to “reduce Social Security benefits for those with high incomes” or to “reduce non-combat military compensation and overhead.”
There are potential downsides to the increasing ubiquity of these visualizations. Time and money are a scarce resource in today’s newsrooms, and building these elegant technologies is resource-intensive. Senior News Application Developer at the Chicago Tribune, Joe Germuska, says that there is a learning curve for newsrooms to transition from filing stories to managing data applications:
“Mere data visualization doesn't require ongoing care-and-feeding, but it also needs to become cheaper to produce in order to match the timing of the news cycle, both in terms of how much lead-time you have to produce it as well as how much effort something is worth if it is going to be forgotten two or three days later.”
There are also, famously, lies, damned lies, and statistics, and one has to wonder if the new techniques of data visualization assist in calcifying a false sense of definitiveness and trust in the underlying data. The fear, perhaps, is that elegant imagery can more easily paper over dubious data. Or data visualizations may appear to be more interactive than it is, while subtly constraining users into Procrustean policy choices. For instance, Felix Salmon of Reuters critiqued the New York Times Budget Puzzle for not allowing more progressive options, such as drastically raising marginal tax rates, to solve the impending $1.355 trillion shortfall projected for 2030; on the other hand, Salmon also criticized the Budget Puzzle for giving the user a false sense of how easy it might seem to fix the budget crisis.
But even with these criticisms it seems hard to resist the power and elegance of these new techniques for data visualizations. Strong data visualization can help a user escape from the sound-byte-only coverage of policy issues, and it can allow a user to identify trends. For example, this Forbes.com online interactive U.S. migration map quickly reveals population movements in and out of American cities. Other examples allow users to track historical trends, as Bill Rankin’s racial map crystallizes segregation in Chicago. Chicago’s long history of segregation and failed public housing initiatives comes into living color. This map inspired numerous other maps for a host of U.S. cities.
These new techniques for data visualization are now also taught in graduate classrooms. At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Professor Tiffany Holmes teaches a social media and technology course for graduate students in the New Arts Journalism program. Holmes uses a variety of visualization strategies in her own artwork and is convinced of the power embedded in a picture. “Images that represent information trends can be provocative and allude to the possibility of a hidden or obvious story,” Holmes wrote in an email. “They are key to the modern world's translation of large data sets as contemporary readers tend to have little time for verbose explanations and prefer easy-to-assimilate charts or pictures.”
Here are some data visualizations by David McCandless (mkandlez), who is behind the blog Information is Beautiful:
Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.
The techniques of data visualization have undergone a revolution in the new information age—from the stagnant Power Point is Evil pie charts to the dynamic examples discussed here—allowing for the communication of news and information more creatively and effectively. The evolution of this sort of visualization will be a critical part of how news outlets and the Internet develop in years to come.
Want to dig deeper? Here are some of the notable data sites or examples of intriguing data visualizations from researching this post:
- Wired.com’s “What a Hundred Million Calls to 311 Reveal About New York”shows us what New Yorkers report to the city’s call center. As Wired’s Steven Johnson wrote, “All this meticulous urban analysis points the way toward a larger, and potentially revolutionary, development: the city built of data, the crowdsourced metropolis.”
- Forbes.com Data Driven section—described as “a look at companies and new technologies that are helping to make the growing supply of data useful”—aggregates news media stories about data companies and technologies.
- Phillip Niemeyer’s “Picturing the Last Ten Years” is, as the title suggests, a visual narrative of the last ten years. Not completely related to “data” but certainly a quick visualization-based walk down memory lane.