The Power of Data Visualisation

A whitepaper by Digit

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Introduction

It’s finally data’s moment in the spotlight. Thanks to the increasing ubiquity of beautiful infographics in mainstream media such as The Guardian and New York Times, data now has an appeal far beyond that of researchers and statisticians. It’s no coincidence that the BBC, arguably a representation of the interests of the nation, recently aired a programme entitled “The Joy of Stats.”

However, data visualisation is more than just a trend in popular culture. It represents a huge business opportunity for the communications industry. After all, data visualisation is really just another effective way to communicate complex information.

“If a picture is worth a thousand words, an infographic is worth an awful lot of data points.” The Economist

More specifically, the growing interest in data visualisation provides a chance for consumer insight companies to shake off their somewhat geeky image. They now have in their grip just the kind of information that data visualisation obsessed designers want to get their hands on.

As a result, we’re seeing a new opportunity for collaboration; merging the ability of research agencies to gather and analyse data, with the design agency’s skill at telling stories through beautiful design.

The recent Digital Life project, a collaborative effort between TNS, Digit and Hill & Knowlton, is a living example of the new relationships that are springing up between designers and researchers. It’s not an over-statement to say the outputs of these collaborations have the potential to change our own and our clients’ businesses.

After all, clients buy data to help them make decisions about their business. If we can improve the presentation and communication of this data through fantastic design - underpinned by insight of course - arguably we can also help our clients to be more effective decision-makers within their organisation.

Before we look more closely at how data visualisation is challenging the very role and reach of consumer insights companies, it’s worth exploring the power of data visualisation more broadly.

Why is Data Visualisation so Important to Society?

The term ‘Information Age’ has been used so much in recent years that it is just been included in the latest version of the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED entry on information is now 9400 words long, an unintentionally telling fact that gives further proof to the observation that today’s society is suffering from information overload.

However, it’s not just the amount of information that is the problem. It’s the fact that so often it comes in vast swathes of impenetrable text and data, and therefore is difficult to make sense of. As Stephen Few commented,

“we are overwhelmed by information, not because there is too much, but because we don’t know how to tame it. Information lies stagnant in rapidly expanding pools as our ability to collect and warehouse it increases, but our ability to make sense of and communicate it remains inert, largely without notice.”

The result is that people are on the hunt for ways to help them make sense of all this information.

Data visualisation, when done well, provides a welcome solution to information overload. It doesn’t just make things pretty – although that certainly helps masses of data seem a little friendlier – it also helps people to notice the things that are important, and elevates data from the realms of the boring and headache-inducing, to the entertaining and understandable.

Good infographics have been described as “something in-between the textbook and the novel” and this captures eloquently the power of data visualisation to present complex information via a compelling, visually beautiful narrative.

Taking it one step further, if good data visualisation allows important decisionmakers to notice things that may have been lost in the information mass, it can have a significant societal and political impact. Bill Gates once confessed to the New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof that the single factor that steered him to helping public health was the graphic in one of Kristof’s articles. Kristof later said,

“no graphic in human history has saved so many lives in Africa and Asia.”

Why is Data Visualisation so Important to Society?

Conclusion

ALL THIS MEANS THE ROLE/RESPONSIBILITY OF THE RESEARCHER IS CHANGING

Digital Life has shown that having the data and the insights is simply not enough. It’s sometimes easy to forget but clients are humans too. And today’s humans are craving data that is delivered in ways that are beautiful, enjoyable and customisable.

Although good researchers have always been adept at identifying the key stories and insights from their data, they now need to add another layer to this process and consider how they can use interactive infographics to communicate their narrative in a richer, more compelling way.

This requires a willingness to begin to understand the power of interactive design – look and feel, level of interaction, complexity of layering, ability to compare and contrast and so on – and to realise that it is not just about making things look pretty. Good interaction design, as shown through Digital Life, can be business changing not just for the savvy research company making it part of their offering, but for the clients who then use it to make important decisions within their organisations.

Bibliography

  1. The Economist Feb 25th 2010, “Show me, new ways of visualising data”.
  2. http://www.psfk.com/2010/12/oxford-english-dictionary-expands-definition-ofinformation.html
  3. http://www.perceptualedge.com/
  4. Nathan Yau of UCLA in a recent book, “Beautiful Data”.
  5. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/25/business/media/25asktheeditors. html?pagewanted=3&_r=1
  6. Michael Shermer, “The Feynman - Tufte Principle,” Scientific American, April 2005. Accessed December 2, 2010 from http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/newet
  7. http://www.perceptualedge.com/