Creativity Bytes: A Brief Guide to Data Visualisation

<p>Read this and sound like an expert. Well, sort of.</p>

Here’s a quick reference guide that will seek to explain the trends, terms, and movements of the brave new media world of art and technology. So you can skim, digest, and be a pseudo-expert next time you’re cornered at a Speed Show exhibition in your local cybercafe. Because, hey, life is short and art long. This week: Data visualisation.

So, what is data visualisation?
Data visualisation is presenting information in graphical form. That information can be how different social groups spend their days, the effectiveness of the various and slightly creepy Jimmy Wales Wikipedia banner ad donation campaigns, Lisbon’s traffic (above), the economic crisis, or even character interactions in popular movies. It’s part of a field of information harvesting that hopes giving graphic form to complex, often incomprehensible issues, will make them easier to understand and comprehend. And they look pretty.

Where did it come from?
The earliest forms of geometric diagrams are from early tables showing the positions of celestial bodies way back in Ancient civilisations, but the link runs through early map making to thematic cartography and statistical graphics. The beginnings of visual thinking started to take root between 1600 to 1700, with John Napier publishing his tables of logarithms, and the next century brought abstract graphs, and graphs of functions. But it was between 1850-1900 when statistical graphics hit a Golden Age, with the first international statistics conference and the publication of a groundbreaking election map of Paris. But then, sadly, it descended into a brief dark age until around 1950, when it was reborn. It wasn’t until 1975 when the shiny, multi-coloured new dynamic forms we know and love started to emerge.

This Week You're Really Digging…
The ephemeral Geotaggers’ World Atlas by Eric Fischer, which traces geotagged photos from Flickr and Picasa in over 50 cities, and Matthias Dittrich’s fanlike music visualisations Narratives 2.0 which cover everything from Beethoven’s “Symphony No.5” to “The Emperor’s Theme” from Star Wars.

Nano Talk
Tell people that as a data journalist, you see data viz as the perfect symbiosis of science and art. The future of reporting will see breaking news visualised in data sets in real-time, and one day your interactive visualization of the plot of Lost will hang in the Louvre. Remark that the expressive language of the future will be infosthetics, then point out you can’t spell information without “form”.

Describe Yourself As…
The Kandinsky of infographics.

Quote from a famous practitioner:
“The main goal of data visualization is to communicate information clearly and effectively through graphical means. It doesn't mean that data visualization needs to look boring to be functional or extremely sophisticated to look beautiful. To convey ideas effectively, both aesthetic form and functionality need to go hand in hand, providing insights into a rather sparse and complex data set by communicating its key-aspects in a more intuitive way. Yet designers often fail to achieve a balance between design and function, creating gorgeous data visualizations which fail to serve their main purpose — to communicate information” – Vitaly Friedman. In other words: lay off the data porn, kiddies, and make data visualization with purpose.

If It Were A Kid's Toy

Information, visualisation, data, graphics, infographics, infosthetics.

Difficulty Level
3.14 to the power of sight.

To recap: In our information-driven society, a new aesthetic has arisen, merging creative graphic design with information representation to create artistically motivated and data-driven forms that marry functionality with artistic sensibility. But who will data visualise the data visualisers? Looks like these guys will.

Next week: Circuit bending