Is Data Visualization the “Front-End” for Big Data?

With great graphics comes great storytelling responsibility – says founder of VISUALIZED.

By Will Kreth

Data visualization – once the province of magazine and newspaper infographics designers – is big business now. A big, interactive business.  From University Ave. to Madison Ave. to Wall St. – data visualization  (or data viz - for short) is changing the way we perceive and evaluate data sets that are well beyond “blink”-like comprehension. From election result predictions to regime-toppling protests to TV advertising analytics – synapse-short attention spans are increasingly looking for meaning amidst the quantified world around us.   “I really think data visualization is the front-end of Big Data,” says Eric Klotz, founder of VISUALIZED – an organization that recently sponsored their second annual 2 day conference in NYC dedicated to the subject.  Hundreds of attendees from around the world packed into the Times Center in early February to hear the leading thinkers on data viz share their take on where it’s all heading. Television’s future as an interactive medium is just one of the areas where data viz will be essential.

 

TIME, SPACE AND MAPS – MANIFESTATIONS OF DATA THAT TELL STORIES.

Perhaps you’ve read information guru Edward Tufte’s books  (like “Envisioning Information”) or attended one of his seminars – where he patiently articulates his pedagogical vision how data should be parsed, displayed and portrayed. Many tools exist in the data viz lexicon to tell stories with data:  scatter plots, timelines and maps – spatial representations of quantitative attributes. The VISUALIZED community grew up on and stands on the shoulders of these pioneers in the field, but is also charting the unmapped “art of the possible” at the same time.

 

“I view VISUALIZED [with its events in NYC and Berlin] as the ‘variety show’ of cutting edge data viz events,” says Klotz (rhymes with “notes”).  With more than 30 presenters from small but mighty data-driven startups and digital agencies, to corporations (ESPN, Google, Microsoft, Marvel Comics, NY Times), academia (SVA, CUNY, MIT), government (NASA) and NGOs (World Bank) – these designers, strategists, scientists and generally damn smart people gathered to share their own state of things.  “VISUALIZED is actually a communications conference, not a tech conference,” Klotz continued -  “and while I go to tech conferences and find them valuable, that's not what VISUALIZED is about. We’re more open to attendees who are not ‘coder rock stars.’ In a time of increased data and shrinking screens, we need better ways to collectively make sense of the information being thrown at us.”

WE’RE MORE OPEN TO ATTENDEES WHO ARE NOT [NECESSARILY] ‘CODER ROCK STARS.’

For the future of TV interactivity, Klotz thinks data viz could be a perfect tool for conveying facts quickly – on a single screen. (Readers of this column will remember my last piece on the data visualization abilities of InAiR Dale Herigstad’s new “Minority Report” like ITV venture with his company SeeSpace).   Text just won’t work on a medium like TV (as much as some would like to think Wikipedia entries add value to linear and on-demand programming).  However, data visualizations could compress the salient details and points for faster cognitive apprehension. 

Take ESPN, who spoke at the recent NYC event and recently created umbrella content group Exit 31 – their collaboration with Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight fame. In Klotz opinion, they’re the “heavy-hitter” among TV networks in the amount of data they have at their command – wanting to impart it – visually - to both the casual viewers and especially for the super-fans. 

(ESPN graphic)

With 24/7 live feeds of sporting events from all over the world, and petabytes of metadata about said video – ESPN has to take data visualization seriously.  *(We’ll dive deep in an interview with ESPN’s data viz team in a future “Will on Wednesdays” column).

The $70b + TV ad industry has also taken notice, with advertisers like GE pushing forward to tell their story through data: “Data viz is also critical to TV’s ad community,” Klotz asserted. “With billions of ad impressions per day, the challenges are the same as programming – convey the salient information as quickly as possible. It cannot be done with bullet-points any more.” In an age where RTB (real-time bidding] and Programmatic ad buying are sweeping through the digital/web ad community – television’s ‘business as usual’ approach to its ad ecosystem will certainly rely on data viz tools to manage the evolution of the value prop on both the buy and sell sides.

WITH 24/7 LIVE FEEDS OF SPORTING EVENTS FROM ALL OVER THE WORLD, AND PETABYTES OF METADATA ABOUT SAID VIDEO – ESPN HAS TO TAKE DATA VISUALIZATION SERIOUSLY.

Self-funded from the start - VISUALIZED had been on Klotz mind for years. “I had been working in Silicon Valley and NYC in advertising and tech, using my skill-sets in the B2B community, and I saw how data visualization was going to be of great use to communicate important stories. Telling significant human stories, globally, in ways they hadn’t been told before.  While working my corporate jobs, I also spent a good deal of time doing volunteer work about telling lesser known news and human-interest stories (underreported.org). This whole event was bootstrapped by me and we went out on a limb – doing a conference that had never been done before – especially at a place like the NY Times Center in Manhattan) - but I could clearly see the interest rising in the area.”

 

THE DARK SIDE OF DATA – VISUALIZED

Big Data is creating a prison of algorithms.” – Bill Davidow (advisor with Mohr Davidow Ventures) – The Atlantic Monthly, Feb. 2014.

All is not boundless techno-utopian glee inside the promise of data viz. The VISUALIZED conference speaker line-up was quick to level-set expectations at the power and potential at our fingertips. From visualizations about drone strikes in Pakistan, to global refugees since 1975, to WWII fatalities or the years of US lives lost to senseless handgun violence – the stories these visualizations told were just as hard-hitting, if not more so – than a series of Pulitzer-winning investigative journalism pieces. The data behind the accelerated pace of climate change had its own special pre-conference event before the main one, and taken together - it was clear than the complexity of real societal problems and eco-quagmires need the power of images to break through calcified patterns of comprehension.

(Out of Sight, Out of Mind timeline of US drone strikes - Wesley Grubbs - Pitch Interactive)

(The Refugee Project - Hyperakt)

(Stolen Years - US gun deaths - Periscopic)

At the same time – the truth is, we’ve become numb – a “data jaded” populace and electorate.  All is not UFB (unicorns farting rainbows, as the experts say). Speakers at the conference referred to today as a “post-Snowden society” where surveillance is a given and privacy as vestigial tail wagging no dogs. While data transparency may foment revolutions and topple a dictator or two, the clawback into power of corrupt regimes has appeared with inexorable predictability, once the tweets have chirped themselves out. 

THE TRUTH IS, WE’VE BECOME NUMB – A “DATA JADED” POPULACE AND ELECTORATE. 

But amid the very real and disheartening reasons of cynicism, there are projects like Jake Porway’s Data Kind and their efforts to document and help act upon social issues globally.

“Ethics definitely come into play when data visualization is used for storytelling,” says Klotz.  “It can be used to liberate or manipulate, because of the inherent amplified power of images over words.” Indeed, some practitioners are using the mashup pun “Infauxgraphics” to describe deliberately misleading or conceptually defective data visualizations.

Regarding the push to ‘visual search’ underway by Google, Microsoft and others -  Klotz says that “images transcend language, geography, styles of learning.  You know, Google says their mission is to ‘organize the world's information,’  - so we say the next logical step is expediting the understanding of that information (as it relates to visual search). That’s one of VISUALIZED’s stated goals.”

Photo: Francis Gagon

Not all data constitutes a story (or even a simple story worth hearing).  Mindful of that, we have to – as both audience and storytellers – balance between the needs of using data for powerful storytelling or just conveying numbers-driven facts – on any screen.

See more videos from the 2014 VISUALIZED event at  http://visualized.com/2014/presents/peter-olson/
 

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Will Kreth is a multi-screen interactive media strategist based in NYC, working at the crossroads of Connected TVs and Mobile experiences that are powered by innovative brands and digital storytelling.  You can reach him on LinkedIn or Twitter.