Facts in focus

Social media and wider access to official statistics have led to an explosion of raw data awaiting analysis. Scott Billings looks at the way designers are visualising that information to render it understandable and usable

One of the more interesting outputs from the early stages of an otherwise slow-starting World Cup was the extraordinary amount of data generated from the minutiae of the games themselves. With data feeds streaming into news and press organisations in real-time, there is very little that isn’t recorded: for each minute of a match we can see the number of passes, possession and zones of play, fouls and cards, balls won and lost, player touches, shots, corners, the frequency of World Cup tweets on Twitter and, if you’re lucky, even the odd goal.

All this raw information is fired around the Web in the instant after the events occur, feeding number-crunchers and data visualisers everywhere. A nice example is The Guardian’s ’Twitter replay’ tool – an animated visualisation of what people were saying at each moment of a match: the more frequently a term is used, the larger its bubble blooms. It’s the 21st century’s Kop erupting with shouts and cries at a malicious foul or a scorching goal.

The competition provides a concentrated and global focus on stats and data, but this is by no means a World Cup phenomenon. In all kinds of fields we are recording and sharing more data than ever. As more of our behaviour is mediated through digital technology, the statistics of this behaviour are recorded as we go. Your iTunes, Spotify or other media player, for example, may well ’scrobble’ all the songs you listen to straight to your Last.fm profile, leaving behind an ever-lengthening trace of your musical predilections.

Many more complex and sensitive datasets are being recorded and disseminated too – the British dead and wounded in Afghanistan or details of local crime incidents, for example. And the volume of available public data is growing fast, fuelled particularly by the work of Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, who has pushed hard for greater transparency of Government statistics.

But making useful sense of this sea of data can be a complex design challenge. Interactive, graphic and information designers alike are tasked with finding ways to let us mine these streams of words and numbers in meaningful ways. ’It’s no exaggeration to say that we’re at the beginning of something really big,’ says Alex Morrison, managing director of Cogapp, a digital consultancy which recently designed The Sunday Times’ General Election data visualisation tool. ’We’re entering a new world where events, locations and contextual information are open and shared, and it’s going to be huge. Visualisation is the sexy graphic output of that, but the challenge will be in designing information architecture which makes sense of it and allows people to do something useful with it.’

As anyone who has compiled a stats-led report will know, achieving a correct and context-sensitive presentation of data is crucial. But with the volume of accessible data growing, the likelihood of misrepresentations grows too. ’We have access to information like never before and it’s almost overwhelming,’ says Michael Robinson, head of graphics at The Guardian. ’Improvements in software have made it easier to input data, but what people are doing with it creates a whole other problem.’

According to Robinson, the explosion in data visualisations, infographics and mash-ups has produced a number of ill-informed, badly designed and even misleading representations. With certain datasets, this could have serious ramifications. ’With any data you can always do something, but a visualisation isn’t necessarily accurate, helpful and good,’ he says. ’Data doesn’t always paint the whole picture; you have to look at why a particular figure might stand out. Having spent years trying to get people to use graphics in journalism I’m now faced with this wash of stuff that’s not good. And if people just produce stuff that’s visually impressive but not good, it will eventually hit back on graphics.’

But there’s no doubt that data can be aesthetic too. Eric Fischer is a computer programmer from California who used Flickr geotagging data to map the volume of photographs taken around major cities worldwide. The result is the Geotaggers’ World Atlas. ’I made the maps because the photo locations seemed like a great source of information about what places in the world people find most interesting,’ says Fischer.

A second series of the Geotaggers’ World Atlas attempts to reveal the differences between locals’ and tourists’ photographs of each city. Comprised solely of coloured data points on a map, when scaled down these images are a visual treat. But they also paint an immediate picture of behaviour, engaging in both content and form.

And as the range and complexity of datasets grow, this is a trick graphic and interactive representations have to pull off – providing engaging and useful access to information without misleading or skewing the truth behind the numbers. Information designers with considerable skill and responsibility will be in demand.

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  • Robert Hempsall November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I’m a huge fan of the Guardian’s infographics, and have kept a number of their recent Fact File series. However, I do think the example shown above follows an increasing trend to show information graphically slightly for the sake of it: to make it more visually interesting than a more usable solution would be.

    In some cases infographics become more like art than design.

    All that said, I’ll still study them with interest.

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