“We’re drowning in data”, according to Stephen Howell of the Institute of Technology, Tallaght. By visualising that data properly we can not only keep afloat on this sea of information, but use this data, which would otherwise be archived and forgotten, to better understand and navigate the world around us, says the computer science lecturer.
As more and more data is created and stored by companies and civic authorities, it has become increasingly difficult to make any sense out of the sheer weight of information available. When this data is released it is often in rough, unrefined form, or buried in miles of spreadsheets, devoid of context and shorn of meaning to all but the most painstaking of researchers.
Infographics are fast-becoming the medium of choice for a society which thirsts for knowledge yet lacks the time or the patience to sift through raw data or spreadsheets. Visually pleasing, to the point, and increasingly interactive, infographics and their creation look set to become big business, so much so that Stephen teaches modules on the visualisation of data at IT, Tallaght.
“Excel is really good and it’s an amazing tool, but it gives you the data, it doesn’t give you the meaning. So people are beginning to rely on these tools for meaning when they should be relying on it for crunching the data and viewing the data, but not for understanding the data.”
If you can programme, you can do very cool things with processing, 2D, 3D and so on. And that’s what we aim to teach, we have two modules on this, one has non-programmers and programmers together where we teach them [the open-source programming language] Processing.
It is difficult to persuade students, especially students who do not have a programming background, to learn a new programming language, and to try and make it a more interesting experience, Stephen tries to find interesting, real-world datasets from industry for his students to work on.
Examples of the datasets he has received range from traffic information from local authorities to temperature data from cooked meat factories, and often the providers of the data are surprised by the results that can be achieved.
“You show someone data that they don’t think is interesting. You say, “here’s the rush hour times on the M50 motorway”.”
A common response would be that it’s nearly always rush hour on the M50, and that there was little to be learned from such data, but when Stephen created a visualisation of the length of the road, with the rush hour areas expanding like a pulse or a heartbeat as the traffic moved westwards, the interest of the local authority which provided the original raw data was piqued.
“They got very excited and said, “we’re having a launch demo next week, can we put that on display for a week?” To me this was just a simple visualisation of data, to them it was showing the data in a way that they had never seen before.”
Often, the greatest challenge in creating infographics or data visualisation is the sifting through raw data in the first place. One of the tools which Stephen recommends is Google Refine, a tool for searching through raw, unrefined data.
“An accountant once told me that he was able to do the books for a company and figure out how many cars they had hidden in the books, because he could find a hole the size of a car and that car was been driven by somebody, but it wasn’t legally listed anywhere.
“Accountants can do this, but it takes painstaking analysis of the data. What if we could develop middleware that takes all the data, sucks it in, sticks it into an engine, and says now, give queries on it?
“Google are building these systems now. They’ve given us a fantastic tool for analysing data, Google Refine. Google Refine looks ugly, it doesn’t look user-friendly, but if you give it any data source, it will analyse it and say, OK, you’ve numbers, you have text, there you go.”
Stephen sees two main schools of infographic creation, one being the visually “amazing” infographics that can be created with programmes like Adobe Illustrator without any great programming experience, “The New York Times infographics approach.”
The other approach, and the type he favours himself, is the creation of interactive data visualisations, which although more difficult to create, will be important in tracing a variety of trends in the world around us.
The challenge for now, as Stephen sees it, is in trying to maintain the flow of data and not simply to hide it in the cloud, creating a 21st century, “detective hunt.”
“We can do it because we have the data, but how many of us keep the data? That’s the classic data problem. Everybody wants to know where their ancestors are from, but unfortunately their ancestors didn’t write it down for them, but the data may exist somewhere, so it’s become a detective-hunt. Companies shouldn’t make their data a detective hunt.”
Additional material from Tom Murphy