Picture this . . .


DATA VISUALISATION:Amid the sea of information available to us, data can be turned into something meaningful, enlightening, even beautiful, writes DAVIN O'DWYER

It was February 2006 when Hans Rosling’s life changed – he was in California to deliver a lecture at that year’s TED conference, the influential gathering of tech entrepreneurs, design gurus and celebrity thinkers.

Rosling was a Swedish global health expert, not the most glamorous of academic disciplines, so his name was hardly the biggest draw in a line-up that included Al Gore, Peter Gabriel and Dan Dennett.

But this was no ordinary lecture: sure, Rosling had plenty of statistics about the correlation of worldwide health and national wealth, but nobody had seen them displayed like this before. Instead of merely presenting his data on a series of slides in a Powerpoint presentation, Rosling made his information come to life, animating them with his own software, each country a colour-coded bubble of varying size.

Showing the march of progress as people all over the globe grew healthier and wealthier over the centuries, Rosling’s breathless commentary made the rise and fall of nations feel like a gripping horse race.

The reaction in the room was euphoric, as the audience realised what it was witnessing – not merely an insightful presentation on global health outcomes, but more importantly a masterful display of information design, elegant evidence that a deluge of data could be manipulated into something meaningful, enlightening, even beautiful.

Five years later, his presentation has been watched by millions of people online, and Rosling has become the world’s most famous “statistician”. He freely says that his famous TED talk changed his life, but the impact was greater than that – his lecture has rightfully come to be seen as a watershed moment in the history of information design.

Back in Dublin and in September 2010, a 16-year-old pupil at St Michael’s College in south Dublin began work on a project for the 2011 Young Scientists’ Competition. James Eggers had been programming since the age of 12, his father’s career in IT making it an obvious pastime. Like all his classmates, Eggers spent a lot of time online and in social networks, though his friends were occupied more by the dense web of friends on Facebook than the more ephemeral, conversational bonds on Twitter.

But Twitter offered an opportunity that Eggers found interesting – at no cost, you could access 1 per cent of the Twitter stream and geographically locate where the tweets were coming from. Would it be possible, Eggers wondered, to analyse the tweets for regional variations in sentiment? After all, the country was going through quite the rollercoaster, with an impending bailout. What could people’s tweets tell us about how we were feeling?

The result of Eggers’ curiosity was The Vibes of Ireland, a fascinating animated map of the country charting happiness levels on a county-by-county basis over a 13-week period, as revealed by the attitudes in our tweets. Counties blink red and orange and green, as moods oscillate up and down. On Budget day, a graph clearly shows how people expressed their resentment and unhappiness in 140-character broadcasts.

“One bit of information, one tweet or one Facebook update, doesn’t mean all that much on its own. But put them all together and you can see a bigger picture,” says Eggers. “I gathered four million tweets and I wrote a programme that analyses each tweet.”

Despite the school uniform and boyish looks, he has a serious, self-possessed manner that belies his years – he delivers his findings matter-of-factly. “For instance, I found people are happier on the west of Ireland than the east, consistently happier. And the midlands are a lot less happy.”

The project earned Eggers top prize in his category, as well as a commercial programming opportunity with Charm, a cutting-edge London design firm. Above all, however, it demonstrated that a 16-year-old kid with a MacBook could join in the same information revolution Rosling had revealed five years earlier. Instead of drowning in the deluge of data we are now faced with, Eggers showed it was possible to extract meaning and patterns, to “see the bigger picture”, as long as you knew where to look and how to display it. The era of the information designer, it seems, is upon us.

In 2008, the internet consisted of an astonishing 9.57 zettabytes – an unimaginably vast sea of data – and it has grown dramatically since then. Without context, this data is only so many bits, and processing it is a demanding task. Providing context is what data visualisation and animation does best, taking advantage of our natural ability to process information with our eyes – registering colours and shapes and sizes is a lot less cognitively demanding than parsing numbers, after all.

“It’s a way of showing numbers that has been around for a very long time,” says Rosling, speaking by phone from his home in Sweden. “But you can throw numbers into the eye, and it enters the visual cortex, but it stops there. Now how do we get it absorbed in the brain? It’s much better that you process the numbers in front of the eye. What we have done is not data visualisation, it’s data animation. ”

The Trendalyzer software Rosling designed with his son Ola was bought by Google in 2007 and adapted into Google Public Data Explorer, one of a number of online data visualisation and animation tools.

The Gapminder Foundation, which the Roslings founded to further global development goals and develop the software, provides a wealth of material to help illustrate Rosling’s ideas, a playful and yet earnest public information project. Yet he is cautious in assessing how the field is progressing.

“The process is slow because it demands a literacy,” says Rosling. “You need both readers and writers in this new graphic language. What you need is more authors and more readers. James Joyce is not enough, you need also readers. And the more readers you have, the more authors will appear.”

Another prominent “author” is UK journalist David McCandless, one of a number of information designers focusing on innovative infographics.

His book Information is Beautiful is a striking example of the art, acting as a kind of manifesto for data-rich illustrations – the days of pie charts and simple line graphs are numbered. What, in his estimation, accounts for the rising popularity of the infographic?

“I think it’s partly to do with the sheer sense of saturation of information, that there’s an urge or a need for a relief from it, because our lives are speeding up and information is increasing,” he says, his laidback voice not betraying too many signs of stress.

“There’s a desire to see things more clearly. And I think the web is having such a profound influence on the way we relate to information, it’s instilling a kind of design sensibility in us all.”

McCandless’s work has featured in many newspapers, including the Guardian, which is embracing what’s being called data-driven journalism. “A friend of mine said he thought data journalism was like the new photojournalism,” says McCandless drolly. “There’s this sense that data journalists are people you send out to the frontiers of information, and they go diving in the seas of data, and they come back with stories and insights, almost like photographs or images of these other worlds or others ways of seeing. I like the sound of that, because it makes my job sound incredibly glamorous and romantic.”

But journalism and health analysis aren’t the only fields embracing data visualisation. John Murray, the creative director of Charm, the London design firm working with Eggers, is excited about the prospects for businessses looking to utilise data visualisation.

“Lots of companies are used to working with Excel documents with basic graphs, and then they expect their staff to engage with it, but you can guarantee that 90 per cent are going to switch off. They can’t process it. So what we’re finding is that there’s a demand for data visualisation dealing with large datasets, making it visually accessible.”

The project they’re working on with Eggers uses his Twitter analysis algorithms to look at how brands are considered. “We wanted to use James’s methodology to measure not just sentiment, but by scraping Twitter and Google News and certain blogs, develop a brand sentiment scale, comparing brand popularity broadly and by region,” says Murray.

Eggers points out that Twitter has been used to try to predict stock markets, using a similar subjectivity lexicon to the one he used.

And political parties also spy potential benefits. “Fine Gael approached me to track the mood of the country, but in the run-up to the election everything got too busy,” says Eggers. “But I predicted there would be 38 per cent support for Fine Gael a week before the last big opinion poll, just using Twitter sentiment. And it was kind of exact, so that was cool.”

This hints at the great promise of visualised data analysis – for all the census statistics it will bring to life, all the sales figures it will illustrate, and all the political trends it will chart, what we really look for in these visualisations is the chance to know ourselves more fully.

Amid all the noise created by the glut of information, we hope to glean a clearer picture of who we are and how we behave – the patterns that will be discovered, the correlations that will be made visible, the previously unknowable truths that will revealed. The ever-increasing computational power can crunch the data, but it will be information designers who show us the answers.

Rosling has compared his work to that of meteorologists, collating huge amounts of data and modelling it, analysing it, searching for tell-tale patterns, before delivering an animated graphic narrative, an information-rich presentation that anyone can understand. Maybe, in the not-too-distant future, information designers will be somewhat akin to weather forecasters, except they will gradually be revealing our true selves with the help of beautiful graphics and dazzling animations.