Guest post: Infographics and the mainstream media

This is a guest post from Ben Harrow, Digital Editor at 72Point and at News by Design, a news site built around infographics – a platform that shows off infographics that tell a newsworthy story in a structured and visually dynamic way.


The term ‘infographic boom’ really grates.

As the product and its presence both continually improve, data visualisation is definitely riding a wave – and I guess that means it’s surfing its way into the mainstream media.

With the likes of The Guardian still setting the bar when it comes to quantity and quality, others news orgs like The Press Association are increasingly getting on board; delivering to the rest of the mainstream UK press and ensuring that the tabloids begin to take note.

Even PRs are seeing greater success with agency produced graphics, hoovering up name-checks and giving the business of infographics a wider appeal.

But how are they being received? Is data visualisation, in all its forms, being implemented more regularly just because it’s the next new thing? And will there be a place, long term, for graphics and visualisations in the mainstream press, both on and offline, or will the quality collapse and the interest dwindle?

Discussing data – the four kinds of ‘infographic’

I’m not even going to go into the definition of ‘infographic’ – to me, it’s a single piece of data visualisation. An information graphic. An informative graphic. The meaning has changed and will continue to change, as all meanings do.

I will however, break them down into categories because, for me, they all fall into pretty different camps:

Now, the vast majority will fit into the middle two categories – most of ‘The Brave’ won’t go viral or even see the light of day, and ‘The Beautiful’ are few and far between and, oddly, don’t pick up major coverage (because they are often impossible to embed or are a story in themselves, not needing coverage on another platform).

So if we’re talking mainstream media, you don’t really get to see the very best and the very worst.

The UK papers, and a dash across the pond

The Guardian obviously have a monopoly, of sorts, on ‘The Brilliant’ in the UK – when you think about data and data vis, you go straight to the Datablog (but The Economist are consistent, and another good example).

This means that the vast majority of ‘Brilliant’ infographics or data visualisations are only ever produced in-house, whether by their own designers or as part of a wider project attached to the organisation – and they are only ever distributed via one platform. There’s no PR or social media effort, so to speak, simply self publication.

This means that, unlike the standard infographic, which intends to ‘live’ for a long time and remain as viral as possible for as long as possible, they have a shelf life. Which is a curious thing.

As a result, and as is the nature of the type of publication, the ‘Brilliant’ are reactive to the news agenda, feature high quality research and data journalism and are much more suited to print, where they are beginning to appear more and more often (most interestingly as a regular feature in The Metro).

It’s basically journalism vs. public relations all over again.

(When it comes to the US they are, on the whole, kicking the UK when it comes to consistently producing quality graphics – across the likes of The New York Times and The Washington Post, they have more people consistently covering important issues visually – plus, The Guardian have around a third of their readers are in the US, and the Economist is partly US too – selfish, is what that is).

Marketing, PA, PR and social media shenanigans

So marketers saw the potential of these infographics to go viral. We all know the story. Content marketing, blahblahblah.

The better of ‘The Basics’ are attached to good brands and good PR companies, who now have the potential to achieve huge coverage on some of the most popular news websites in the world – and it does make sense to try and take advantage.

Mashable is a brilliant example of an early (and continuous) adopter – develop a good news angle, a strong topline and a decent quality infographic and you’re golden. Even we’ve done it, as part of the day job. And it’s genuine, good quality coverage.

Even the controversial titan that is the Mail Online is beginning to get on board – they’ll employ infographics to explain difficult topics, as the backbone of a PR story and, occasionally, as a story in themselves.

And the Press Association are making the process more mainstream, regularly sending out graphics as a picture desk would send out photos – as a resource for journalists to enhance and enlighten stories.

The quality and interest vary, but it’s an enticing prospect and something which could further wedge the door open, so to speak, to allow room for infographics to become to norm in the mainstream press.

It’s definitely a nice change from the self-producing market leaders (Guardian, Economist) having the monopoly on beautiful, visual things – but only if we’re heading in the right direction.

The Problems

For me, there are two reasons why infographics in the mainstream media are becoming pollutants – because of either the clients, or the quality.

For example, take, ironically, ‘The State of Infographics’ infographic that went viral as anything earlier this year – really good looking piece and some really good data.

But look at the ‘client’ – topmarketingschools.net. I refuse to hyperlink, but take a look. Take an actual look. I dare you.

Brands, doing infographics based subject matter relevant to their public perception, are my favourite. They show understanding, wit and intelligence, and the willingness to do something new.

But when it’s marketing spam, for a website that’s useful to no-one with content that has no relevance to your brand?

That’s when you’re polluting the pool.

The same goes with poor quality infographics – if you’re going to do it, do it right. Don’t spend >£100, or use a company you don’t know, and just do it for the sake of doing it believing that if it’s an infographic, it’ll go viral.

It won’t.

Don’t use research you’ve seen on a different infographic (or no research at all, or unreferenced research), repeating the process just because you’ll catch some marketing value by proxy (Gangnam Style. Ooofffftt).

You won’t.

I can understand that not everyone can afford an intense marketing effort, but there are young freelances who will really try for you, and survey companies that will offer you research. And there are always original ideas.

We don’t always expect ‘The Beautiful’ – and as I said, they don’t often go viral -but if people strove to rise above the average, there’d be no arguments from any corner.

In short, marketing or not, it’s about the story. Graphic and data vis. are great tools, but so are photos, news copy and video. Don’t use something simply because it’s trending, or simply for the sake of using it.

Think of a brilliant story, and use whatever medium will tell it best. It will make the best journalism, the best marketing tool, and the most viral product.

And that’s coming from someone who’s worked in data journalism, is a PR, and loves talking about infographics.

Smell Maps: Beyond the visualisation of data

In my most recent ‘10 most significant blah blah blah‘ posts at the end of last year I included (at number 8) examples of where designers were going beyond solely the visual representation of data. Some of these examples included Moritz’ Data Cuisine Workshop, experiments like Tasty Tweets and fun pieces like Pumpkin Pie Charts.

One collection of projects that most intrigued me came from the work of Kate McLean and her fascinating sensory maps: mapping the smells, sounds and tastes of a city. Here is an example of a wonderfully-titled project ‘Auld Reekie‘ showing the smell patterns of Edinburgh.

auldreekie

Kate is a designer, photographer and a lecturer, and describes herself as a ‘sensory researcher’ producing work that “challenges the paradigm that graphic design can rely on the visual. We have 5 senses… let’s use them“. I love the quote below, welcoming visitors to Kate’s homepage, as it perfectly captures the incredibly evocative and enduring memories we can create from our non-visual senses.

SensoryMaps1

There are so many dimensions to Kate’s work. On one level she creates abstract visual representations of cityscapes using shape, contours and colours to encode the smells that characterise different parts of a city.

The cities that seem to provide the most striking experiences are those older, non-homogeneous cities with a varied tapestry of cultures and communities. She has done work on Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newport (RI), Paris and New York, and right now she is working on a smell map project for Amsterdam and has just returned from an exhibition of a 3D Smell Map of Milan.

milan3dsmellmap

Her process involves undertaking ‘smell walks’ of a city to capture for herself the essence of a city through its aroma. She will then record these experiences forming a ‘smell’ sketch layer of notes on top of a map of the city. From this research Kate will create a visual portrayal of the city, as we see in the image at the top, but she also goes a stage further by making up individual scents using natural ingredients that best reflect the smells identified. These aren’t part of the maps themselves but are incorporated into the wider exhibition, as she describes in an article for the Daily Mail:

Each scent is stored in its own bottle which is stored in a small cabinet underneath the map. I prefer to keep the contents of the bottles hidden so that the audience cannot rely on visual cues to identify the smells. I have learned how to distill rose petals, to create a perfume of stinky cheese, to depict the smell of penguins at the zoo without harming a single penguin. I can fabricate the smell of a building site and of boy’s toilets in primary schools*.

In the image below we see an example of another interactive approach to creating this work, here conducted on a Paris smell map project. Here, the audience were invited to smell a scent, consider their memory or recollection of that smell and then note the feeling they identified with the smell before placing their note on the map in the location they most associated with that smell.

smellmapsprocess

Kate has also worked on a ‘taste map‘ project in Edinburgh using slabs of beef dripping (that eventually melted!) to illustrate the different levels of fat content in typical diets based on (I think) the available cuisine/food outlets around the city. She has also worked on a tactile representation of Edinburgh.

taste_edi_cac4

You can keep a track on Kate’s fascination research and design process through her blog and follow her updates on Twitter (@katemclean). For further information, you can listen to Kate chatting about ‘Smell and the City’ (…the lesser known TV series!) on radio in Rhode Island last summer and here is a presentation she gave on ‘Representing Smell‘.

* I think I received that aftershave for Christmas a couple of years ago…

Introducing Big Dive EU 2013

Last year I had the pleasure of taking part (in a very small way!) in the Big Dive EU, an intensive 5 week training program based in Turin, Italy aimed at boosting a new generation of data scientists and visualisation developers.

After a successful first edition, TOP-IX, together with Axant, ISI Foundation and Todo have announced there will be a second edition of this event and I’m more than happy to share details and help spread the word:

The demand for data scientists is growing exponentially and we are just at the beginning of an exciting Big Data era in the IT world. This is your chance to boost your data science skills diving into the BIG DATA universe. Big Dive EU is like a street-fighting gym where high value datasets are the raw material in the hands of a bunch of ambitious smart geeks tutored and mentored by experts in three key areas: Development, Visualization and Data Science.

Here is an outline of the disciplines that are being covered:

# DEVELOPMENT

# VISUALIZATION

# DATA SCIENCE

The second edition will start on June 3rd, 2013 and run through to July 5th with full-time lessons Monday through to Friday of each week. There are only 20 places available for this fantastic training opportunity. Applications close on 19th May so act quickly. Pricing information can be found here but for more details in general visit the website at www.bigdive.eu, email the organisers at info.bigdive@top-ix.org or check out the twitter feed @bigdive_eu.

St Helena: Big Data on a Small Island

This is a guest post from Dr Paula McLeod who has one of the most interesting jobs (and challenges!) I’ve heard of for a long time. In September of 2012 Paula was appointed as statistician for St. Helena on a two-year fixed term contract. Very few of you may have heard of St. Helena. It is a small volcanic Island in the South Atlantic Ocean, a British territory with only 4500 residents. It is such a remote island that it was used to imprison Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815 and it takes five days to sail by RMS St Helena to Cape Town for access to travel hubs. The development of an airport scheduled for completion in 2015/2016 is expected to transform the island’s fortunes.

This week Paula will be hosting a local event as part of this week’s worldwide Big Data Week so I invited Paula to share with readers the unique challenges she is facing in her role such as “transforming the quality and range of available statistics, support users in accessing and interpreting data”. Paula is very keen to invite any readers to share with here any suggestions of resources or support that you think may be of help in the ongoing development of the island’s capability.


St Helena is a small island heading for big change. One of the most isolated islands in the world St Helena has been used as a stopover for passing ships on the pre-Suez canal route from Europe to Asia and South Africa and as a place of exile.

St-Helena-Jamestown-from-above

The isolation is true both physically and in terms of communications- our internet connection speeds range from 128Kbps – 2 Mbps depending on the depth of your pocket. Although improving the speed of our broadband services is dependant on securing funding to re-route a planned trans-Atlantic fibre connection the days of physical isolation are numbered. St Helena is facing up to irrevocable change with the impending arrival of air access- construction is well underway for an airport scheduled for operational completion in February 2016.

As we head into this change St Helena has a higher than ever demand for reliable data on the people, the economy and the environment. The statistics need to be bang up-to-date (where possible) and accessible to all (always!). To build trust, provide accountability and enable the community at large to engage and support the change process everyone must have access to the same information. This means many changes in the way we collect data, process information, and then report and disseminate. We need to modify approaches to provide immediate information, accessible to all and presented in a way they can understand regardless of level of education. I don’t believe that these are radical ideas but making an idea a reality is not always easy, especially when involves many technical and skilled processes.

Before coming to the island I had only ever worked in the UK in academia and the civil service. I took for granted the many experts which surrounded me. If that advice and support wasn’t found in my office or through professional contacts then it was often a Google search away. Training courses and workshops are readily available. Where needed consultants and contractors can be bought in to fill vital roles in a project for a day, a week or as and when required.

On St Helena to send a team member on a one-day training course is going to require upwards of a month away from the office to allow for travel time. On-line seminars and e-learning is a growing area which we would love to engage with… but these, unsurprisingly are not tailored to our internet capacity. It’s not unreasonable to make use of You-Tube, until you are in a place where your download allowance is 500Mb a month. It is exciting to see seminars being made available on-line. Finding them is not always straightforward. Again, unsurprisingly, browsing is not a quick process when most websites are not designed for limited bandwidth.

The thirst for knowledge and advancement found here is admirable. When presented with information well there is genuine delight. An hour-long session showing Hans Roslings documentary “The Joy of Stats” has the most amazing impact. You may be able to watch this online any time you like, or order the DVD for next day delivery. For St Helena it took 8-weeks to arrive by post.

We want to engage and inspire people but that is almost the easy part. Keeping up interest is more difficult. It is slightly grieving that having initiated excitement about data we are unable to back it up with convincing example of where this can be put to good use. Data collection and collaboration on St Helena is in its infancy. Migration towards electronic databases is in progress but currently exists as disparate, isolated solutions. The need for change towards conformity and collaboration is recognized but difficult to achieve. This reticence to engage with new techniques and technologies is repeated the world over and it is fantastic to be able to join with international initiatives, such as Big Data and Statistics 2013, in order to make progress.

It is hardly surprising that data is difficult to get hold of and poorly used when is difficult to show the benefits. Why should anyone be expected to be burdened with sharing sensitive information about themselves or their business if there is no apparent benefit? (other than the pleadings of a dedicated enumerator!).

Some prime data issues on St Helena are:

Fear of information: there is a strong suspicion that information will be used against people. Disclosure risk is difficult to manage in a small population. The island population currently stands at a little under 4,300. To be unique is the one common characteristic! That said, many people are open to the concept but need to be convinced of the benefits that come from sharing information on income, wages and so on. Businesses and those responsible for production need an even greater level of persuasion that collaboration on use of data will benefit their business as well as (not just?) that of their neighbour.

Limited use of business data: from monitoring stock level to market strategy there is a keen need for better use of data. This isn’t a support service businesses can buy in- the skills simply aren’t available on island. The solution is training and support but people need convincing that the expense and effort are worth it. We don’t have local examples so look to provide inspiration from overseas… just need to pin-point the right stories!

Lack of understanding: we just can’t “see” the benefits of using data well. The UK media is a wealth of information and the way this is presented is constantly improving. If further information is required it is a few clicks or a trip to the library away. These are straightforward activities which just aren’t as easy here. Our local library is not blessed with many core references on use and understanding of data or statistics. On an island where the median income is less than £6,500 all purchases must be very carefully considered and clearly justified.

The island needs to be shown the benefits that come from making personal and business data available for use by those equipped with the expertise to manipulate, analyze and present information. Equally important to the ability to correctly interpret the information with which they are presented- to know whether this information is correct, fundamentally flawed or being cherry-picked to support a particular business need or political stance.

This isn’t a sorry story from an isolated British territory, heavily dependent on UK aid. This is a story of a small island growing in population, economy and potential. We need to develop in the use and understanding of data to ensure we are to be equipped to deal with our entry into the international arena. This is a journey that many other have started on, perhaps just a little bit ahead of us and with a greater ability to accommodate change. Capacity within the St Helena Statistics Office is limited and are needs are many legged (see below). If you have any suggestions of resources or support that you think may be of help in this development then we will be very grateful to hear from you, you can email me via statistician@sainthelena.gov.sh.

Data needs of St Helena

You can follow Paula’s personal experience of this genuine life experience on her blog ‘Small Island Stats‘.

Best of the visualisation web… March 2013

At the end of each month I pull together a collection of links to some of the most relevant, interesting or thought-provoking web content I’ve come across during the previous month. Here’s the latest collection from March 2013.

Visualisations/Infographics

Includes static and interactive visualisation examples, infographics and galleries/collections of relevant imagery.

Peoplemov.in | Updated interactive slope graph by Carlo Zapponi to show where the migrant populations of the world are moving from and to as of 2010.

Economist | Simple but effectively executed video graphic to explain the trend-bucking recent rise in music sales

Microsoft Research | ViralSearch: Identifying and Visualizing Viral Content (video)

Washington Post | Where Americans go to work: commuting in and out of counties nationwide

Wired | Microsoft whiteboard unites big data, predictive drawing and autocorrect

University of Lincoln | Gallery of projects from the Graphic Design course, trying out visual storytelling

ChronoZoom | Interactive tool to convey and contrast the staggering difference in sizes of the Cosmos, Life and Humanity

National Post Graphics | Impressive collection of graphics from the National Post Canadian (online?) newspaper.

Reuters | A multi-media, multi-chaptered mini-site exploring the different dimensions of ‘Connected China’ (work by Fathom)

Behance | Cost to Cost: ‘visualising holidays for all budgets represented by a world map where the position of the different cities is not based on the real distance but on the price of low-cost flights from Italy and the cost of 3 nights in hotel during the week of Christmas’

Huffington Post | Exploring the people who have died in gun-related incidents since Newtown…

Slate | …and a very similar project from Slate

Data Blog | Re-creating John Snow’s cholera map with modern mapping tools

PRC Web | A experiment/demonstration of a wind map for the UK

Feltron | The Annual Report of Feltron 2012

FastCo Design | Infographic: An App That Maps The Web In Real Time

La Sombra Del Asno | Beautiful infographic about wine tasting that won a silver medal at Malofiej 21

Pitch Interactive | The widely seen and praised project about drone attacks ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind’

Forecast.io | Very attractive looking aggregated weather forecasting tool, despite the persistant rainbow colour schemes.

Timeplots | New project from Timeplots: A visual history of US state boundaries

Articles

The emphasis on these items is that they are less about visualisation images and are more article-focused, so includes discussion, discourse and interviews

Harvard Business Review | Special data visualisation collection from the HBR with many articles from some very prominent names in the field: some good, some great, some mediocre.

Tapestry | The collection of presentations and talk slides from Tapestry conference

Data Remixed | Ben Jones offers some key take away points from the Tapestry conference…

Google Docs | ..and here are Enrico’s notes also from the Tapestry Conference

13pt | Annotated slides from Jonathan Corum’s Tapestry talk

13pt | … and the ‘dvd extra’ details of his deleted slides

The Why Axis | Bryan’s discussion with Interactive Things’ Christian Siegrist about the design process behind their World Inequality Database on Education project

IBM Business Analytics Blog | Guest post from Fran Van Ham offering a retrospective of six years of Many Eyes

Garcia Media | Reviewing the SND 34 competition and exploring the fate of two contrasting infographic entries

10,000 Words | 10 ‘Snowfall’-like Projects That Break Out of Standard Article Templates

Art Lebedev | The making of the Moscow Metro Map 2.0

Adam Crymble | The two data visualisation skills historians lack

Perceptual Edge | Stephen Few’s notable article criticising elements of Tableau’s latest release arguing that they are ‘veering from the path’

Simon Rogers | …and focusing on the particular exchange between Simon Rogers and Stephen Few

Vancouver Sun | Continuing the discussion with a well-argued article from Chad Skelton ‘In defence of eye candy, bling and Tableau 8′

iRevolution | ‘Doctor Snow’s Health Map Propaganda’

Marketing Land | What Makes A Great Infographic? 8 Experts Weigh In

iCharts | Interview with Moritz Stefaner the ‘Intersection of Truth and Beauty’

ProPublica | One of several great reviews of the Malofiej 21 event, this from Al Shaw…

Scientific American | …and this from Jen Christiansen

Jon Ferry | Detailed process narrative about Jon’s alternative design for the football table

Fathom | The design narrative for the ‘Connected China’ project

Science Careers | Article about modern mapmaking and the new cartographers

iA | Superb long article about how ‘learning to design is learning to see’

Mapping Complex Information | 10 factors to information design problem-solving

The Why Axis | Second great post from Bryan Connor, this exploring the Washington Posts’ project ‘How long will we live – and how well?’

Datavisualization.ch | Design narrative from Interactive Things about their work on the ‘Life After Fukushima’ project

Masters of Media | Interesting piece discussing colour, framed by Moritz’s famous ‘colour is difficult’ quote

Bloomberg TV | ‘A look at how this graphic form of business analytics and intelligence software is helping companies analyze data, forcing C-suite executives to develop what some call visual literacy’

Learning & Development

These links cover tutorials, learning opportunities, case-studies, how-tos etc.

Telling Information | ‘Before you hit the ‘chart’ button…’, useful advice from Lulu about choosing the right chart to illustrate different points about data

Eager Eyes | Robert explores the idea that ‘visual representation gives numbers and concepts a reality they don’t otherwise have’

Data Viz Blog | A review of Alberto Cairo’s MOOC ‘Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualisation’

Eager Eyes | A better definition of chart junk (particularly interest comments/discussion)

Stamen | Stamen announce their new mapping project titled ‘here’

Subject News

Includes announcements within the field, brand new sites, new (to me) sites, new books and generally interesting developments.

VisualizingEconomics | New book by Catherine Mulbrandon ‘An Illustrated Guide to Income in the United States’

UK Data Service | Newly discovered site with a collection of datasets providing ‘a comprehensive resource funded by the ESRC to support researchers, teachers and policymakers who depend on high-quality social and economic data’

Graphics Link | Conference: 17th International Conference Information Visualisation, 15th to 18th July 2013 in London

The Visual Agency | New design agency based in Milan founded by Paolo Guadagni

Sundries…

Any other items that may or may not be directly linked to data visualisation but might have a data/technology focus or just seem worthy of sharing

YouTube | ‘Michael Bentine explains why it would be madness for Britain to join the Common Market, while all hell breaks loose behind him thanks to a bit of Biographic genius.’

Vimeo | Brett Victor’s enviable portfolio of work (projects only from 2011-2012!)

New York Times | Evolution of the New York Driver’s License

Women attending data visualisation training (analysis)

I’ve only had intermittent WiFi access over the past 48 hours but earlier today I caught a discussion relating to the percentage of delegates attending data visualisation training who are female.

Any ongoing discussion about gender balance and participation of women in our field is of great value and having trained over 800 delegates since November 2011 I felt I had a good sample size from which to draw some analysis relating to this issue. Instinctively, I responded to Lynn Cherny’s tweet below with an estimate of about 35% of delegates being female but I decided to do some quick work to firm this up.

I went through my records and marked up the gender of those attending my public training classes. I don’t have sufficiently detailed records of those who attended private training events, which make up about half of this dataset, so I discounted these from the investigation. This gave me a sample total of 430 people. A quick bit of analysis and presentation in Excel is shown below, click for a larger view.

GenderAnalysis

Aside from revealing my incredible powers of astuteness (35% vs. 36.5% is pretty good, let’s face it!) the main headline from this analysis reveals that the percentage of attendees who are female is higher those participating in the recent data visualisation census. Perhaps this shows that a healthier ‘pipeline’ of females entering/learning about the field.

Guest post: Using Silk for simple data visualisations

I’m in the midst of inviting a few folks to contribute guest posts to profile their work, ideas or knowledge. This guest post comes from Jurian Baas of Silk, who explains how you can use his tool to create and publish simple data visualisations.

It’s exciting to see how people start to recognize the importance of data visualisations. Good data journalism and visualisations help to make sense of the enormous amounts of data being made available each day. But while there is a much needed growth in visualisation tools, their learning curve is steep. Unless you are a mathematician or programmer, it’s hard to know where to begin.

We are building Silk to make it easier for everyone to get to work with collections of data. A Silk site lets you import or create datasets, and publish articles and interactive visualisations. The data and analysis’s live in one place, so your visitors can be encouraged to play around with the parameters of the visualisations. We aspire to make working with data available to everyone, just like blogging platforms like WordPress and Tumblr did for publishing.

oscarsandpiracy

To show you how our platform works, let’s see how a Silk site gets made. I’ll use myself as an example. I’m a big movie fan, and I created a Silk site about pirated Oscar movies. I found a dataset with information about when Oscar nominated movies got leaked on piracy sites, and imported the spreadsheet into his Silk site. For each row in the spreadsheet, a page is created that holds all the information from the columns.

csvimporter

I used the IMDB to add actors, directors and other information to the movie pages. This makes each movie page interesting in itself.

djangopage

On the homepage, I placed interactive visualisations to show which movies are leaked early, and which genres are leaked the most. The graphs use the properties on the imported pages. Anyone visiting the site can hit the ‘explore’ button on each widget and play around with the data. In addition to graphs, you can also insert interactive maps if your site has location data (see The Guardian’s Silk site for an example).

oscargraphs

That’s all there is to it! I hope some of the readers of Visualising Data find value in our platform. We are constantly trying to improve it, and welcome any kind of suggestion and commentary. You can read more about the tool here, or check out this collection of Silk sites. I’m on Twitter as @jurb.

Quadrigram: Beyond visualisation as a scientific instrument

Just about this time last year I posted about Quadrigram, a visual programming environment ‘to gather, shape, and share living data’.

Quadrigram

Having written this week about storytelling and successes of data visualisation, it was a coincidence that Alberto Gonzalez Paje, from the Quadrigram team, got in touch with me recently to invite people to contribute cases to a new initiative they are running called ‘data stories’ and a request for anybody interested to submit ideas, case studies, examples or applications. I’ll leave it to Alberto to articulate the background to this request:

As working with data becomes more integrated in classic professional practices, new disciplines such as data journalism, data consulting, and data research expand the realm of information visualization outside scientific and aesthetic concerns. The professionals or “map-makers” of these new disciplines are seeking to gain leverage over their data and augment their capacities to squeeze and mash it.

This cannot be effectively achieved by adopting frameworks for processing and visualizing data that are based on programming languages. These frameworks are incompatible with the non-technical backgrounds of these professionals. Other wizard-based approaches are too limited to leave room for creativity.

Therefore, there is an inherent need for new practices for working with data, based on a more ergonomic approach that recalls how an artisan manipulates clay to create custom and expressive sculptures. In essence, this is the philosophy behind Quadrigram, an online tool with a unique visual language.

Quadrigram tries to bridge the gap between information technologies and professionals looking to build new types of data experiences, such as storytelling with data.

We just started an initiative called “data stories” that aims to tell stories where data visualisation plays a key role in decision making or problem solving. We want to publish on our website/blog specific cases where data visualisation has played a key role in solving a problem. An example case for this initiative was the data visualisation participant census data, a perfect example of data story. Here is an example of a “data movie” showing the patterns and dimensions of insight from this data gathering.

So if any of you out there have any case studies, requests or ideas for potential applications of using Quadrigram to tell stories, please contact Alberto via alberto@bestiario.org and see what data stories emerge.

Interview with Simon Scarr

Simon Scarr is an extremely talented infographics designer and, until very recently, was the Graphics director at The South China Morning Post based in Hong Kong. He is about to take up a great new role as Deputy Head of Graphics for Thomson Reuters, based in Singapore.

If you don’t recognise the name, you probably don’t pay enough attention to me! I first came across Simon’s (and his team’s) work at Malofiej 20, noticing a number of his pieces across a great portfolio. When he started blogging his work last year (GraphicsInfo) this gave a new audience access to the outstanding work emerging from the South China Morning Post and I included him/his work in my ‘10 most significant developments‘ collection at the end of 2012. I was thrilled to hear his team won a total of 5 awards at this year’s Malofiej event, including a presitgious Gold award for Simon’s own work on this infographic about Picasso’s Paintings.

I invited Simon to take part in an interview just as he was about to begin a new life! Here he talks about his career, his background as an infographic designer, the work of the SCMP and many other things about this fascinating world.


 

Can you tell me a bit about your career/education background – how did you become an infographic/visualisation designer?

After graduating from college, where I studied general Art & Design, I found myself looking at different degrees and Universities to further my studies. Most of the options involved the broader Graphic Design degree, but one of my tutors handed me a brochure for another course I’d never heard of, Information Graphics and Newspaper Design at Newcastle College (UK). There were a few examples of graphics in the brochure and a brief outline of what infographics are. I was intrigued and after an interview with the course leader, I left knowing this is definitely what I wanted to pursue. At the time I think this was the only diploma or degree focusing purely on information graphics and newspaper design in the UK.

My first ever infographic came on the opening day of the course when we were asked to do a hand sketched step-by-step process of how to peel a banana. Using no words, we had to explain everything visually. This was the first and most important lesson I learned – show it don’t tell it.

 

How did a Brit end up working as a Graphics Director in Hong Kong for the South China Morning Post?!

After graduating I worked for The Herald, a daily broadsheet in Glasgow. This was a great paper to learn at the time as the paper was full of good design and graphics, recently winning World’s Best Designed from SND. I would say this is where I did most of my real learning. I had a great Graphics Editor who helped me develop early in my career.

After five years it was time for a change and I accepted a job with Reuters News Graphics Service who had recently relocated their main global graphics desk from London to Singapore. A few months later I relocated to Asia.

I worked for Reuters for four years covering a range of breaking news, features and sports topics, including a month-long Winter Olympics posting in Canada. Then I was introduced to a role with the South China Morning Post which was very interesting to me as they were looking for someone to come in and help strengthen and build graphics through the paper. This was especially intriguing because it was my first opportunity to shape graphics my way.

 

For those not familiar with it, how would you describe the paper, its target demographic etc.?

The SCMP is a daily broadsheet first published in 1903 with a circulation of 100,000, mostly distributed in Hong Kong and surrounding areas. Close proximity to the mainland and sources throughout the country have helped the publication build a reputation for authoritative and influential reporting on China. The paper is the only English language broadsheet in Hong Kong and has a readership made up of affluent locals with a strong understanding of English, expatriates and visiting tourists.

With this unique positioning, the newspaper benefits from a healthy advertising climate, fueled mostly by luxury advertisers targeting mainland Chinese tourists and affluent locals. This has made it possible for the paper to maintain a strong position despite changes in the overall print landscape. That said, the importance of digital has also been recognized and a lot of resource and effort was put behind the recent re-design and re-launch of the website.

 

Can you tell me a bit about the context of working in the graphics department at the SCMP? How many staff do you have? What is the editorial culture and its relationship with the graphics team?

The department structure consists of an Art Director/Head of Department, Stephen Case who focused on the illustration and general artwork in the paper, as well as running the department, leaving myself, as Graphics Director, to take control of the information graphics. I also acted as his deputy in the running of the department. Then there is Senior Illustrator Henry Wong and Senior Infographic Artist and illustrator Adolfo Arranz, who we recruited from Spain. There are a further three full-time and three part-time artists/illustrators as well as some remote freelance contacts. In addition to the artists on the team, we created the role of a Graphics Coordinator, to facilitate our process and support the team. This role was extremely important and the Coordinator had to deal with a lot of the behind the scenes work such as collating requests, negotiating time and sizes of graphics, proofing and rewording some text, chasing up data sources and helping with some in-depth research. Having a Graphics Coordinator allowed me to spend more time directing the actual work and bigger projects, occasionally getting to do some projects myself too.

I think the editorial culture and attitude towards graphics has changed a lot in the last couple of years. Initially the appreciation for infographics was not as sophisticated and the primary role of graphics was to look good and substance and quality of information was secondary. Changing this perception, along with other bad graphic expectations was one of my priorities to address. I wanted to show that graphics can have just as much impact through the story they tell, by keeping them clear and easy to understand, rather than being embellished with unnecessary artwork. Not everyone was convinced by our cleaner approach to infographics and this proved a challenge. After time, and through a few examples, people started to understand. The most noticeable change was probably after the graphic I created illustrating Iraq’s death toll back in 2011. This was a very simple chart using only colour to suggest blood. As the graphic was in progress, a few people in the newsroom suggested splashing drops of blood on the page but we resisted all unnecessary artistic touches.

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There has since been a shift from being more of a service department to a serious voice in the newsroom. As well as suggesting graphics to accompany stories often our graphic pitches would initiate (or inspire) stories such as the road traffic graphic below which ran with a feature on Hong Kong’s traffic problems.

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Can you briefly describe the typical situation and process behind the development of a graphic? Typical timescales, design workflow?

There are three different ways graphics can come about. First there could be a request from a journalist or editor who has some data and would like a chart or map for example. Second, there is the morning and afternoon news conference and a weekly advance news/features meeting. Something can be raised in here or we can spot something on the news lists and suggest graphic options. And finally, we’d often pick up government data and keep an eye on major upcoming news events and pitch graphic ideas to the editors ourselves.

Graphics can take anywhere from an hour or two for simple charts and spot maps to a few weeks depending on the content. The full-page feature graphics we often create to go on the back page are usually planned a few weeks in advance and worked on in the background while dealing with daily work. This is a regular display page and we could make full use of the space. The only problem we had was keeping up with demand as they became very popular.

BackPageExample1

Print

 

Can you pick the top three favourite pieces you have worked on/that have been published at SCMP?

My favourite would be the Iraq graphic already mentioned above. For a graphic of this size it is one of the simplest pieces of work I’ve done but also has a very strong visual impact. The information is very clear and easy to understand.

Another favourite would be the Beatles graphic. I chose this one because I had fun creating interesting and playful ways to show the data using records and music notation. Hopefully it put a smile on a few readers’ faces as well as ours.

Beatles

Picasso’s Paintings was another one of my favorites and had to be the most labour intensive graphic we’ve ever done. The volume of research, editing and checking that went into this graphic was immense. For it to come off as a success was very satisfying. It’s also a subject I’ve not seen anyone visualise before. It was awarded our first gold medal at Malofiej so will always bring back fond memories.

Print

I’d also like to give special mention to another fantastic graphic from our Senior Infographic Artist Adolfo Arranz. This shows a different approach we sometimes take to our graphics that require a more human or natural touch. Not everything is data driven or involves technical vector drawing. This graphic on wine tasting was published last year to coincide with Hong kong’s annual wine fair. I didn’t have to do much with this one other than pose with the wine glass (that’s me in the graphic). This piece recently won a silver medal at SND’s Best of News Design competition in February.

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What would you describe as being your favourite subject matter or a dream task?

I’ve always enjoyed detailed vector drawings in Illustrator such as the Space Shuttle and Titanic but I would love to do more data-driven sports graphics. I had a few chances while at SCMP but would like to do more in the future. There are huge data resources for sports out there and I’m hoping this is something I can explore further in my new role.

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Shuttle

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What would you describe as your main sources of inspiration creatively?

I always keep an eye on the work others are doing and attend talks and conferences. Sometimes you can see work or hear someone’s thoughts on a subject or a particular type of chart and it will spark ideas. I believe the wider the range of work you look at and read up on, the more your own work will improve.

I also like to sketch ideas and illustrations out in the early stage, often experimenting with new ways of displaying the data. Sometimes scribbling ideas out on paper or playing around with data on the screen can suddenly spark a new idea.

Sometimes I take a slightly unconventional approach to graphics with particularly dry data or subject matter. I would use design, use of headline and representations of familiar objects to draw the reader in without unnecessary artistic touches. Examples would be the retail sales and electricity graphics below and the traffic “arteries” already shown above.

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So in cases like these, I would read into and explore the general subject I’m covering and not just the data itself, looking through a lot of visual reference in case there is anything which could be reinterpreted in graphical form.

 

From a regional perspective, you will have a unique insight into the practice of information graphics in the East, how you would characterise the approach, appetite for and consumption of information graphics/visualisation?

In Hong Kong I think readers are starting to understand and appreciate the importance of infographics more. You see a lot more featured in the SCMP and some of the local papers also use graphics of some description.

While newspapers in mainland China have been using information graphics for a long time and more recently they are becoming more popular online and on social media sites, I do believe there is a way to go in terms of overall execution and level of sophistication.

As for the rest of the region I have seen more illustrated type of graphics and less data visualization represented in the newspapers.

I believe one common problem Asian publications share is the lack of quality graphics or the correct display of graphics online. I’m not just talking about big showcase feature graphics but more the correct use of regular maps, charts, and smaller graphics. I find when they are used they are often disjointed and not thought about properly – like an afterthought taken from the print edition and often hard to find.

We have started to see change in the region as interest grows and more information graphics resources become available. Workshops and awards competitions being held by the likes of WAN-IFRA and SOPA will fuel this evolution and I look forward to watching the change unfold.

 

So, what’s next?

It was very difficult to say goodbye to such a great team and a city that I love but it was time for another change. I have recently taken on the role of Deputy Head of Graphics with Thomson Reuters, based with the team in Singapore, but also working closely with graphics desks in New York and London. In this role, I will focus on strengthening and growing Reuters’ global graphics service to media and financial clients. While I’ll be responsible for managing and directing graphics, I hope to still have the opportunity to work on some projects myself.

Discussion: Storytelling and success stories

I’ve not been able to keep up with all threads but it seems there have been a number of interesting discussions over the past few days covering various aspects of the role of data visualisation and what we should expect from it. Thought I’d join the party late and throw in a few thoughts of my own as I was planning on writing something about these subjects anyway.

Storytelling in visualisation

Firstly, I would recommend you take a look at Moritz Stefaner’s post about the different functions of visualisations – those that tell (or more specifically show) stories and those that don’t. I particularly suggest you read the comment responses at the bottom of the post, I haven’t read them word-for-word but skimming through reveals some good discussions in there. Interestingly, you can see how often the nuances and semantics of the written word are at the root of many disagreements about perspectives when they are actually the same views just articulated differently.

I’m not going to get into deep discourse about what I believe a story is and how that relates to visualisation but I just wanted to share my view on the distinction I personally make between the two main types of visualisation function: exploratory and explanatory.

Exploratory visualisations create an interface into a dataset or subject matter. They do not propose a single narrative, nor actively draw out key insights or headlines. Instead, they facilitate the user exploring the data, letting them unearth their own insights: findings they consider relevant or interesting. It is a discovery process that could potentially lead to the finding of many different insights or maybe none at all, depending on the user’s context. Typically, we might consider exploratory visualisations to be interactive in format (and indeed often we are talking about a ‘tool’ of some description) but they are not limited to being interactive.

Explanatory visualisations are focused, editorially driven works that aim to surface key findings. Whilst they may contain several different dimensions of analysis this doesn’t mean they are exploratory in the sense of facilitating broad manipulation of the variables being displayed. It is in these types of visualisation that we would most associate the function of storytelling with data, often attributed to how they are structured.

In many cases it is hard to exactly identify or purely distinguish whether a project is exploratory or explanatory in nature. In some cases this is the failing of the design. It might neither draw out the key findings nor let you explore the subject’s data. In other cases the difficulty might be because the designer has created an effective combination of both.

The way I judge whether a visualisation is exploratory or explanatory is to ask myself ‘who does the work to reveal insights?’ (BTW, this is not a unique idea, I’ve heard of others who propose the same).

If I, as the reader, have to do the work (either visually or interactively) to find insights it is more exploratory than explanatory. By contrast, if the designer is the one who takes the responsibility to present the main insights, I see that as more explanatory than exploratory.

Let’s look at the example of Moritz’s work on the OECD Better Life Index. This is an exploratory tool to allow people to investigate the different quality of life indicators and measures for a range of countries across the world. This project is entirely user-driven Is there a single or group of important findings? No, there are many possible insights contained within this dataset. These only become insights once a pattern reveals something relevant to a user. With (I recall) 34 countries and 11 different quality of life indicators, there are many ways a user can slice, analyse, sort and explore this data.

image_3462OT_01_01

Similarly, the next example from Kristina Szucs is exploratory in nature. It is a static project that provides insight into the combination of film review scores and movie profitability. Whilst the subject matter is filtered to show a specific view of the data (just the top 3 profitable movies, by genre by year) this is still exploratory. You learn how to read the chart using the legend at the top of the display then apply that lens across the piece to discover the films, genres, and shapes that most interest you. The design does not include a specific headline discovery or conclusion, it simply acts as an interface for you to find what strikes you as an insight. Once again, you as the reader do the work to find what is interesting to you.

Movie

By contrast, this piece from Simon Scarr is contains a main narrative, the striking reverse bar chart shows the fatal impact of the Iraq conflict. Accompanied by a few supplementary charts for additional context, this is a focused story principally about one dimension of the subject matter. The size of the chart, the colour scheme and the overall architecture are representative of the designer taking responsibility to highlight a story for you to consume.

Iraq

 

Success in visualisation

The other issue that has been aired in recent days – but also discussed for a long time in general – is the question of where are the visualisation success stories? It is something we posed in the Data Stories podcast 16 and I know it will be discussed in podcast 21.

There is always a strong appetite to find examples of where visualisations have made a difference: opinion changes, behaviour changes, money savings, great discoveries and maybe even life saving.

It is natural for us all to seek a marquee and tangible example that indisputably provides popular evidence of the value of this subject. That’s perhaps why so many of us cling on to story of the John Snow ‘Cholera Map’. Regardless of the true nature of the impact of his dot plot map, we can use this to fit in with our agenda of wanting to show how visual portrayal is so important at influencing decisions and situations.

However, I’m increasingly aware of how ‘success’ of visualisation is rarely tangible nor grand in nature. And it doesn’t need to be. It is ultimately a form of communication. We don’t seem to put the same weight of expectation or desire for outcome measures on many written forms of communication, do we?

The main issue is what does success look like? Yes, that awful management phrase that invokes a chill down the spine. Well, naturally and boringly, we have to think first about intent and context: What are you trying to achieve and what are the expectations in terms of outcome?

Using the first of two horse-related idioms or phrases, it is all about horses for courses.

Building on the discussion above, let’s think about the distinction between success from exploratory visualisations and explanatory ones.

It would seem to me that the ability to attribute ‘success’ is more tangible with exploratory experiences, either as an exercise in visual analysis (where it might be you as the audience) or as an interactive experience for others.

Suppose a particular combination of variables, filters or selections reveals an insight. That is a discovery. If this discovery was achieved as a result of the visual portrayal and something that we may not have seen visible with statistics or data alone, then that success has to be attributed to visualisation.

Whether this changes the course of society is another matter. Someone might have unearthed the discovery that a vaccine can cure a certain disease or it might be that you spent more money last year in Nandos than you’d realised. The contexts are very different and similarly the impact is likely to be very different (unless Nandos was the cure…) but success has occurred: something interesting or relevant has been found in the data and the expectation was fulfilled. 1-0 to visualisation.

Now the chances are that the Nando’s situation is a good deal more likely to be happening day in day out than the Hollywood-esque discovery of the vaccine’s positive effect. However, the Nando’s example will be happening in very personal and private settings. We don’t necessarily have widespread access to these stories because they are ultimately quite minor and we don’t really have them on our radar because we want to aim higher. But they happen to all of us almost subconsciously everyday and they are important.

On the other side of the equation, the explanatory visualisations, what should we expect from them?

I’ve recently been thinking about the possible parallels between visualisation and marketing communication theory. In particular, the concept of AIDA, which describes the incremental events or effects of advertising.

AIDA

I’m no expert in Marketing Communications – as will be seen clearly over the next few paragraphs – but having learnt about it a few years ago it has always struck me as potentially transferable (with a few tweaks), perhaps into a AIIA model of Attention, Informing, Influencing and Acting:

Some adverts are intended to simply achieve ‘Attention‘ or ‘Awareness‘, the first ‘A’ in AIDA. Attracting the attention of the customer and making them aware of the existence of that product/service is the limit of the ambition so achieving that is success. That’s why you might see, for example, so many god-awful annoying adverts that exist to stand out from crowd. They might not convince you to buy anything but that’s not the aim at this stage. Likewise with visualisation, some projects are probably achieving success (in their minds) if you have achieved such attention, somebody has simply looked or engaged with them. Quite a low ambition, of course, but this might be exemplified by the setting of visualisation as a prop or artefact, maybe in a magazine to focus your eyes on that article.

The ‘I’ part of the AIDA acronym is about raising ‘Interest‘ by demonstrating the benefits and advantages of a product or service. Maybe the equivalent in visualisation is about informing somebody, by providing a visualisation that addresses a gap in understanding about a subject.

D‘ is for ‘Desire‘, to convince the potential customer why they should need this product or service. Perhaps in a visualisation context the equivalent would be something more around influencing, going beyond simply informing and starting to have an impact on somebody’s belief system or choices they make. Maybe an example of this was the Drones Strike or US Gun Deaths projects? Neither of these works are likely to have the ambition of stopping drone strikes overnight. But the more people who digest them and who are affected by the human messages contained, it is not hard to imagine how a chain of events layers up with other information could ultimately lead to protest or opposition action to government policy? (Incidentally, not the attempt at evaluating success at the end of this post).

The final ‘A’ is for ‘Action’, to take the customer towards the act of purchasing. For visualisation this idea of action could be consistent with the ultimate success measure: you have sufficiently influenced somebody about a given subject matter that you have triggered an action, a decision, a change. Is it the impact of Al Gore’s rise in his cherry picker to follow the projected temperature forecasts? Or was that less about the visualisation and more about the drama of the delivery? Who knows, but this is the holy grail, the type of ‘success stories’ we’re all keen to find examples of.

This model is not a perfect fit, nor do I propose that these equivalent levels of success measurement are the best way of judging impact, but I feel it is worth the discussion about how other communication-related disciplines define tiers of success.

Perhaps we just need to wake up more to when they happen and notice them. This morning I have been looking on Kayak at flights prices for a forthcoming trip. I never even thought about the display that was influencing my decisions but I’ve revisited it just now. Decision-support devices like this are everywhere but we take them for granted. A visualisation success story is that I am now in position to buy this flight with confidence and know that I’ve got the best price for the date on which I’m leaving.

Kayak

Final Reflections

Finally, we need to acknowledge the things that have most impact. People.

People are irrational. They are inconsistent, moody, prejudiced, have tastes, have pressures, are influenced by political factors. In my training materials I include the image below, related to my second horse-related phrase for the day: You can lead a horse to water, buy you can’t make it drink.

Horse

You can only do your best to put forward a visualisation that most effectively serves the needs of the subject matter, the context and the audience you’re reaching. Beyond that, the ultimate success is out of your hands.

Regardless of the information Kayak provided me with I might have booked an expensive flight in the mid-afternoon just because it suited me better, maybe I am superstitious and like to leave at 12 noon precisely. An irrational choice given the information I had to hand. If I don’t follow the implied advice the data visualisation presents to me, it’s not that it failed it is just because people are and can be be odd but they are such an important part of the measurement of success.

I look forward to any discussions, comments in the boxes below…