Infographics: Communicating The Essence Of A Tidal Wave Of Information

As databases around the world begin to share and compare their data with ever-greater meaning and relevance through the rapid roll out of Linked Data implementations, it is going to become more and more challenging to corral that data and make it into something user-friendly and practical. After all, data isn’t worth anything unless it is usable in some form.

We do know that there is a tidal wave of data coming right at us just over the horizon. According to one source we passed 3 zettabytes (21 zeroes) in 2008. So how so we begin to make sense of it?

One answer to help solve the need for increased intelligibility lies in the nascent field of information graphics or infographics for short. Up until now it has been a geeky/arty sub-genre of the Internet and regarded as something quite separate from the hard-core, often macho world of ‘real’ coding. But researchers, artists, statisticians and folks from all sorts of other fields are realising that not everyone wants to plough through all those numbers and data tables, and why should they, when a simple picture can tell the whole story.

But infographics has the possibility of being something far more than the mere prettifying of data. Assembling data in this manner to produce an infographic, a chart, or some other means of communicating an idea visually is really content production. The most important rule of content production is tell a story. That is the secret of all the most interesting infographs.

The all-time master (so far) has to be Hans Rosling: it’s worth taking a break now and watching his TED presentation where he sets the record straight on widespread notions concerning the ‘developing world’. There is even more of his work over at gapminder.org.

In his historical graphs not only can you view a data subject over time, you can also compare it to other neighbouring data subjects. Plus, in the graphs at Gapminder, you can set your own parameters to achieve a very great degree of fine tuning. It is impossible to play with this data without garnering some very interesting insights into how the world has developed over the last hundred and fifty years or so. Up until very recently, for Hans to have been able to communicate this knowledge and information, which he presents in such an understandable and approachable way, would have required hours, days, weeks, months even, to assemble and put together. Then there would be the time spent writing the book or making the film so that he could share the findings and insights with others.

Not only do we have the the chance to make data sensible and easy-to-use, we can – through the application of Linked Data and various new applications – do it in relatively short periods of time.

The possibility arises not just of a new and important channel of communication but of a new and exciting possibility of new art form. There will be a great need for more practitioners in this field with the creativity and talent to be able to make huge swathes of data intelligible and useful.

In the same way that IT departments devolved into separate computer services and web services departments and we now have a further devolution of social media functions as a professional sector in its own right, I can see data representation as becoming an entire skillset/profession as well.

Further reading:

  • This article from the Association of Computing Machinery that was helpful in laying out the land and the terms involved.
  • Protovis is an open source programme from Stanford University. It is free and probably a good place to start building your own infographics.
  • Google Fusion Tables is another place you can try building something for free.
  • Nathan Yau (@yfd on Twitter) has been leading the way for some time with, for instance, the use of UN data to create a world progress report. There is a nice interview with him in the magazine for the School of the Art Institute in Chicago in which he lays out some of his thinking.