Why nobody is reading your reports, and how data visualisation can help
26 July 2018
Nowadays, almost everything we do is traceable. We generate data constantly and this variable grows exponentially as we become more and more connected. The future lies in personalised experiences, made possible by this constant exchange of information. New technology embedded in smartphones and wearables has the ability to generate historical data that narrows down, defines and creates an image of the owner of the device. Data represents a unique opportunity for businesses because it brings them closer to their consumers and allows them to engage in personalised conversations.
Visualisation stems from the need to draw conclusions, come up with answers, provide proof of a hypotheses and clarify, in an easy to digest way, the information that has been obtained from a wealth of data. It works as a bridge between people and information. In developing data-driven strategies, the emphasis is on insights.
Knowing how to interpret data and construct a narrative around it allows us to make decisions based on data, often reducing the margin of error. However, Data Driven systems put into place without human supervision can end up misleading us. It’s for this very reason that the role of Data Scientist is so fundamental (not to be confused with a Data Creative who specialises in display and visualisation of data). Data Scientists ensure that the decisions being made are not being made without human intervention.
Digital artists have been exploring new ways of communicating and representing data visually. New technologies have allowed them to create more powerful displays, helping to bring together both emotion and art into the world of data.
When it comes to articulating a message or thinking about the best way to convey the meaning of a set of data, there’s a number of decisions that need to be made – similar to those any artist takes into consideration before beginning a piece of work. The form, the colour, heirachy of different elements and so on.
Data visualisation projects, like the Atlas of Emotions, demonstrate that these decisions are not made without creative consideration on the part of the creator. The Atlas of Emotions began as an initiative developed by the Dalai Lama in order to study the nature of emotions and their effects on humankind. With the help of psychologist Paul Ekman, the project has given shape to many complex processes. This simple, interactive visualisation of data answers common questions like – What triggers our fear response? What are the consequences of fear? Is there a difference between concious and unconcious fear?
Often Data Creatives choose to represent data in the form of a geographical map. It makes sense; the data we’re interested in visualising usually correlates with other values like demographic data, location of competitors etc.
Another popular way of visualising data is time; particularly data in relation to the lifestyles and routines of famous and respected philosophers, composers, scientists and artists. The visualisation below, created by Info We Trust, depicts the routines and rituals of a number of historical figures. It was inspired by Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals, and it provides a greater degree of insight through the use of colour coding to represent the 24-hour cycle.
Representation of data has a direct impact on how that data is perceived and interpreted. So what if we want to illustrate a concept that goes beyond the data we have access to? Future is a series of data-driven sculptures that shed light, metaphorically and literally, on the violation of human rights around the world. This project is not just a representation of data, it’s a symbol. It was shortlisted at the Fast Company’s premiere of the World Changing Ideas Awards.
Suddenly, production and staging becomes a narrative tool. The language through which data is represented has no limits and its forms of representation are infinite. And suppose what we want to do is make people feel data? In that case, Domestic Data Streamers can help you create an installation, like they did with Western Digital for the United Nations COP23 summit. Visitors could take the pulse of different sustainability objectives.
Some people associate data with dehumanisation. It turns people into numbers and behaviours into patterns. Often, data is disconnected from the complex realities of human life. But, in the age of the algorithm, data intiatives of this kind can reveal critical information through a very human lens. Visualisation is a powerful tool with which to generate social impact because it’s capable, as Domestic Collective explains, of “Making the invisible visible” and translating complex ideas into a more human language.
The new artists
These visualisations are a means through which we can observe, understand and explain the world – it’s a form of artistic expression. The creative process is extensive, it involved extracting data in order to transform it into something that expresses, symbolises, explains or emphasises meaning. The practice of data visualisation has given rise to a new breed of hybrid professional – engineers who are also artists.
Magnetoshpere, a project devised by Robert Hodgin, co-founder of The Babarian Group, is not disimilar to the work of the Whitney Brothers, experimental filmmakers who introduced the world to abstract cinema through digital animations that were somewhat mystical and hypnotic.
Large companies are now investing in multidisciplinary groups with a focus on data visualisation. Google create the Google Data Arts Team which uses Google technology to develop projects that transform the world.
One of their visualisation projects allows users to interact with a digital globe, choosing any city in the world and taking a moment to listen to their stories of male on female violence. It becomes an experience for the user, bringing him or her into the reality of victims worldwide.
These new forms of storytelling are tools for creating powerful and disruptive discourses. More and more spaces are being created where art, technology and social impact come into contact. This trend indicates that multidisciplinary teams and professional profiles will become increasingly necessary. In addition to people and professionals, we need new spaces, ones which allow for a synergystic flow. The upsurge in methologies like Design Thinking demonstrate the need for cross-collaboration between different fields. These kinds of practices make it easier for us to come up with different solutions and create exceptional experiences. Whatever you have to say – find a unique way to express it, turn it into art, make an impact.