Data provides the means by which science progresses, legislation changes, and society advances; data is the enemy of witch hunts, bigotry, and ignorance (not to mention Creationism). But data is always gathered at a certain time with a certain purpose; and to be useful it must be mined, parsed, and presented.—Peter Hall, “Bubbles, Lines and String: How Information Visualization Shapes Society” in Graphic Design: Now in Production, 2011
Welcome to the rapidly expanding world of big data. According to IDC, a technology research firm, the “digital universe” is doubling every two years. By 2020, there will be 40 trillion gigabytes of data being created, replicated and consumed each year—data comprised of personal images, texts, Facebook posts, Twitter updates, banking transactions, security footage, scientific records, music downloads, blog posts, YouTube videos and more.
Of this vast quantity of data (5,200 gigabytes for every man, woman and child), IDC predicts that a small fraction – 33% – ”might have value if analyzed.” Here, the researchers assume that someone (or something) will be responsible for selecting, combining and organizing millions of raw data elements into visualizations that reveal actionable, useful information.
The definition of what constitutes “useful information” can be quite personal and varied. However, perhaps Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver most universally define the term when they describe “information” as “that which reduces uncertainty” (from The Mathematical Theory of Communication). Data-based information should indeed strive to increase confidence; knowledge formed from empirical evidence and rational thought might greatly improve our understanding of both ourselves as well as the world that surrounds us.
ARCADE issue 31.4, Designing Data, examines the multiple ways that information has been visualized in an effort to increase understanding and generate knowledge; the issue includes a small collection of work demonstrating the unique ability of data visualizations to combine both art and science to communicate and amplify meaningful messages. The survey is organized according to a three-part taxonomy proposed by the design critic Peter Hall in his essay*, “Bubbles, Lines and String: How Information Visualization Shapes Society”: Scientific Visualization, Journalistic Visualization and Artistic Visualization. Examples from the issue, with accompanying comments and explanations, will be posted here on ARCADE’s website over the following weeks (subscribe to ARCADE to receive the print edition).
As defined by Hall, scientific visualization is typically a tool for discovery; scientists use visual structures (such as plots, charts, graphs and diagrams) to reveal patterns and relationships that might not otherwise be easily apprehended. For example, by mapping the incidence of malaria over time and geography, scientists can discover where the disease is epidemic, as well as where rates are increasing, due to climate change (see "Understanding Malaria"). In some cases, scientific discovery may also entail the development of new visualization tools, such as the treemaps developed by computer scientist Ben Shneiderman (see "UNAIDS Treemaps and More").
While not discussed explicitly by Hall, scientific visualization might also be considered to include the visual models that graphically communicate and explain scientific theories and phenomena. As described by information scholar Bill Ferster in Interactive Visualization: Insight through Inquiry, such models are valuable because they can provide a framework for understanding fundamental issues. The diagram of mosquito behavior in “Understanding Malaria” acts as such a model, depicting and explaining multiple variables – feeding and resting times, preferred environments and sources, geography and control methods – in a single visual. In a more lighthearted way, the project "OMG SPACE" (see "OMG SPACE and the Scale of the Universe") also presents a scientific model—an exact scale replica of our heliosphere, where one pixel equals one kilometer.
In contrast to scientific visualizations, journalistic visualizations are largely driven by the need to inform and explain complex topics to the general public. Often, these visualizations are a collaborative effort between specialists; the Nobel Prize information graphic (see "Nobel Prizes and Laureates, 1901–2012") was created by the Italian information design agency Accurat, whose founders have degrees in economics, design, sociology and architecture. Similarly, The New York Times op-ed charts (see "A Year in Iraq") of military fatalities in Iraq were created by Alicia Cheng of mgmt., a Brooklyn design consultancy, in collaboration with political scientist Adriana Lins de Albuquerque.
A particularly unique example of journalistic visualization is “Vendor Power!”—a collaboration between designer Candy Chang, the Center for Urban Pedagogy and The Street Vendor Project in New York City. Published by the Center as part of their "Making Policy Public" series, and distributed directly to NYC vendors, this large-scale fold-out poster explains complex vending rules, and has become a useful tool for facilitating conversations between vendors and the multiple agencies that regulate their activities.
Scientific and journalistic visualizations are similar in that both seek to answer relatively well-defined questions; in contrast, the role of artistic visualizations is more open-ended. According to Hall, artistic visualizations “bring to light and challenge the prevailing assumptions … they offer new alternative modes of representation.” Owen Irianto’s "Casualties in the Iraq War, 2003–2008" has a different point of view and aesthetic than The New York Times op-ed charts also covering the conflict; his project is most compelling in an installation format that encourages slower contemplation. Amy Keeling’s “Shift” was also originally designed as an installation, with an interactive software interface that allows users to self-direct their data explorations, determining which elements should be compared, aggregated, shown or hidden.
The purpose of organizing this collection of visualizations into a taxonomy is, of course, a form of information design itself; taxonomies exist to help us better understand the characteristics – functional, visual, structural – of groups within a larger whole. The field of information design contains widely varied schemas for the systematic organization of information (for example, see our post on Wurman’s LATCH), each with their own advantages and detractions.
However, perhaps the most powerful schema for structuring information is the most ancient—stories. Research indicates that stories facilitate the imprinting of information into memory, and that humor, style and aesthetics play a role in the development of knowledge. In the field of information visualization, there is a fundamental debate between those from computational disciplines, who often wish to consider aesthetics from primarily a usability standpoint, against those from creative fields, such as design and journalism, who tend to place greater emphasis on emotion, beauty, stimulation and surprise. The group of visualizations presented in this issue of ARCADE aims for the middle ground between these polarities, acknowledging the equally valuable contributions of both art and science.