Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The tentative first steps

So this being my first blog post, I feel I should "lay out my stall" so to speak, so here goes.

The purpose of this blog really is to share some of my thoughts about the fascinating and multi-faceted world of data visualisation. I am a data analyst by trade, but often find myself frustrated by my own inability to succinctly and impactfully convey the most pertinent and poignant features of the data. I find myself getting lost among the many realities that face an analyst in the real world: deadlines, the demands of many stakeholders (often conflicting), software, my own ineptitudes, and of course, not being able to find that little golden nugget within the dataset, that one revelation that can really take your breath away, leading to astonishment and a real feeling of discovery. Those moments are rare, but they certainly make the pain of analysis and data visualisation worth it.

I hope to share a few of my own revelations, frustrations, and visualisations here, and also pay tribute to those who do this kind of thing with much more creativity and simplicity than I can ever hope to do! 

I am however feeling a little shy today, so rather than exposing a shoddy piece of my own, I figure I'm going to share with you my top 5 visualisations that are inspiring me at the moment. In no particular order....

1. "Breaking Down Google's 2011 Revenues", presented by Wordstream and developed by Nowsourcing.com. For me, this conveys a whole raft of information but is neatly segregated so as not to overwhelm the beholder. I think there's a nice use of colour here and a restrained use of imagery, which is rare! The cost per click for some of those keywords really highlights what a buoyant economy the world of search is.

2. 3D London Underground Station Maps, by Andrew Godwin. This is a fairly new creation, and only came to my attention about a week ago, but I really like this. I'm a big fan of maps anyway, and living in London this is particularly useful to work out which stations to change at during a journey. Its very 'stripped-down' as well, just simple lines and colour and is a doddle to navigate using your mouse.

3. "Life in Data" by Ben Willers. I had the good fortune to meet Ben on a recent data visualisation course in London led by the venerable Andy Kirk (check out his site  http://www.visualisingdata.com). Ben gave me his business card and shared a few neat tricks which I have since put to use (I had no idea you could copy and paste Excel charts into Adobe Illustrator!!). During a quiet moment one day, I re-found his business card and came upon his website. His Life In Data project for his MA Design really struck a chord with me, being a little obsessive about counting calories and keeping track of finances myself. I admire Ben's restraint in his work in using minimalist colour palettes (often sticking to just one or two colours for each piece) and very few words, just letting the data speak for itself. I can only imagine how dedicated he must have been to collect all that data!

4. "7 Billion: How Did We Get So Big So Fast" produced by Adam Cole, cinematography by Maggie Starbard. Andy Kirk put me on to this one. The thing I like about it is how abstract it first appears (depicting population by a glorified bar chart really), but how in doing so, it takes you so close to the issue of global population growth. The final shot of the cylinder full to the brim is a powerful closing image indeed.

5. "When Sea Levels Attack" by David McCandless. I can't possibly have my first list devoid of the man that started my fascination with data visualisation. I bought his book "Information is Beautiful" on the back of a passing recommendation of a management consultant and was instantly hooked. This, I thought, was how data should be presented as a standard, not as a novelty. If you've ever seen a private sector (or public sector for that matter) PowerPoint data-heavy presentation, you'll know that we still have a long way to go. Anyway, back to this particular piece. Its really nothing more than a bar chart, but boy is it powerful. The use of silhouettes to depict each city, and the dual scale of years and water level really pull you in forcing you to give this piece your full attention. This is probably one of my favourite McCandless visualisations and just proves that you don't need to bombard your visualisation with colour, pictures, words and charts. Its a lesson in simplicity which I am trying hard to internalise myself!

Finally, I'm working on a visualisation at the moment concerning the use of pharmaceuticals in England, and already the figures have left me shocked, both in terms of the number of pills we pop as a nation, and the bill that the government (and therefore us taxpayers) have to foot as a result. Another week or so I think, and then hopefully I can share it here.

The Data Curator (in training)

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