My Route was a heritage project based in Birmingham. I was commissioned to design a touch table that would show the changing history of the Stratford Road, one of the key routes in the city, from the 1940s to today.
Working with digital agency Substrakt, and touch table developer John Sear, we created an interactive touch table that was placed in a local community centre and a library for several weeks for the public to use.
The touch table shows a selection of the businesses, with audio, image and video content. Users interact with the touch table by moving the coloured “decade” lenses over the road, and icons appear when there is content available. Touching the icon reveals the content.
(an edited version of this article originally appeared in the HyperWM newpaper, Nov 2012)
Once upon a time …
When was the last time you sat down and read a fairy story?
It may be a few years, but I’m sure you could tell a few of those childhood stories from memory. Whether it’s the interesting characters, the exciting storylines, the emotion you felt or the moral lessons you learned; the stories stick.
When was the last time you sat down and read a spreadsheet?
I’m guessing, never?
Unlike a fairy story, a spreadsheet has no characters, no thrilling plot, no emotion and no lesson to be learned.
You probably skip straight to the end, check out the total and close the book – you certainly don’t print out all those pages, and take them home for a cosy night by the fire.
However, there IS a story in that spreadsheet – it’s the story of a situation, a rise or a fall, a pattern or a trend. It may be a thrilling rollercoaster of a ride, it may be a fascinating insight into the current landscape. Unfortunately, it’s hidden behind all those rows and columns of numbers.
This is where visualisation comes in – taking those statistics and turning them into something the human eye can fathom – colour and shape, placement and size. By presenting these numbers in a visual way you create something that anyone can understand, irrespective of their literacy, numeracy, language, background or prior knowledge of the subject.
Through bar charts, pie charts, line graphs and full-on infographics, the story is revealed, we can see the characters (the different elements) on their journey – we can see the changes, the excitement and the disappointments.
That story will provoke a reaction – anger, satisfaction, joy or disgust – all emotions that will prompt our next move. Do we stay on the same route, or does something need to change?
Without clear and simple representations of the information, there will be many people who simply don’t get it.
And in the current climate of transparency and accountability – data is only open, if everyone can access it.
Once we reach this point, we can all begin to make clear, informed decisions about our future and the future of others and, hopefully … live happily ever after.
There must be something in the water …. twice this week I have received emails from online journalism students asking for my thoughts on data journalism – and more specifically, my data idols.
The first was an email from Germany – or student Katarina Bons to be precise – asking for information about any studies into data journalism in the UK and
who the key players were.
During the completion of my final MA Online Journalism project, during a desperate need to relieve tension, I pasted the text of my MA final dissertation into Wordle. Whilst I regrettably did not save the final image there were some surprising, and not so surprising results. Data, was of course – one of the most commonly used words (so much in fact that the A key on my laptop broke off and flew across the room).
Another word that cropped up, worryingly often, was McCandless.
Poster boy for the data generation, but not without his critics, David McCandless is definitely my data-crush – his simplistic yet visually stimulating work is a definite inspiration to me and – in times of creative drought – I have asked – “what would McCandless do?”. (to make the shortlist of an Information is Beautiful challenge was one of my personal highlights)
Then I received an email, a few days later, from BCU MA Online Journalism student Duarte Romero Varela asking for a recorded interview about data journalism.
Being an alumni of that particular course, and a self-confessed data geek, I was more than happy to hold forth.
- Q: who is my data viz hero? (A: see above)
- Q: what tools do I use? (A: Excel > Tableau > Illustrator)
- Q: what is more important, how clear a viz is, or how it looks? (A: both – a clear ugly chart is like a badly written article – who’d want to publish it?)
This question was of particular interest to me – the tide does appear to be turning against data viz / infographics at the moment, thanks to the tsunami of terrible examples finding their way into web content, newspapers and onto billboards, bus stops and the side of coffee cups. There are cases, and I am definitely guilty of this at times, of being seduced along a path of beauty, and forgetting about the practicalities and the journalism.
Here’s how I see it …
Journalism: what are you trying to convey? What is the story?
Clarity: it has to tell that story
Design: it has to look attractive for people to want to interact with it
It’s a shame that there are so bad examples out there, outweighing the good and giving the whole area a bad name.
There is a real need in some cases for highly complex information to be reworked into a visible format and it would be a shame if we threw the useful bar chart out with the overdesigned viz