A couple of years ago I ripped a chart called “All of Inflation’s Little Parts” out of the paper edition of the New York Times and pinned it to the board next to my desk, where it has remained ever since. It rendered 84,000 prices in about 200 categories into an elegant, immediately graspable chart that resembled a stained glass window. It was and continues to be an extremely admirable piece of visual explanation. You can see the interactive version here (check out the pop-up mouseover annotations).
Now Stanford has produced a 1-hour video exploring the world of data visualization (aka data vis), including an appearance by Amanda Cox, the creator of the chart next to my desk. It turns out I have been an Amanda Cox fan for years without realizing it, thanks to her superb graphic visualizations in the Times. Amanda: “The highest goal is to change what you think about the world.”
Clearly, facility with exploring vast realms of data in context are becoming mandatory for a successful career — or even survival — in today’s journalism.
The rock stars of data vis are part graphic artist, part coder, part journalist, part statistician, and sometimes part cartographer. But with all the dazzle it’s frighteningly easy to distract oneself from what really matters. Providing a path to understand the human context, much more than the gee-whiz aspect of these beautiful visualizations, is what makes them work when they do. Thoroughly annotated and captioned visualizations are more useful and meaningful than the most colorfully stunning data cartoons because, without signposts that indicate meaning to them, the bulk of the audience is reduced to bunch of kindergartners let loose in a science museum, mindlessly pushing buttons to see what happens with even a glancing thought as to what it all might signify.
I stream, you stream
Technologically driven examinations of real-time data, from the ludicrously but beautifully documented minutiae of Nicholas Felton’s life, to the shocking discovery via data vis that Kanye West is indeed widely perceived as an asshole, hardly seem worth all the silicon-based effort. Yet the power of these techniques, if not yet but soon, is undeniable.
Stanford Visualization Group also offers a site where data vis tools are housed and explained. As a browser native technique, Protovis in particular seems to have a great deal of potential for creating interactive websites that do more than simply besmirch the reputation of Kanye West.
There is no shortage of tools to be explored even by amateurs as this new discipline takes off. The revolution is being televised with tools such as Google Charts, UUorld, Many Eyes, Wordle, Widgenie, by design firms such as Stamen, and is being documented by sites such as eagereyes, infosthetics, FlowingData, visualcomplexity.
Now all we need is do is to take the focus off Kanye West and onto meaningful data. For starters, in my own area, it would be advisable for financial services and investor education to get on board — and fast.
In the church of information, we all need some beautiful new stained glass to illuminate our yearnings.