May 19, 2024

Slipstream: When the Data Struts Its Stuff

They are computer scientists, statisticians, graphic designers, producers and cartographers who map entire oceans of data and turn them into innovative visual displays, like rich graphs and charts, that help both companies and consumers cut through the clutter. These gurus of visual analytics are making interactive data synonymous with attractive data.

“Statistics,” says Dr. Hans Rosling, a professor of international health at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, “is now the sexiest subject around.”

Dr. Rosling is a founder of Gapminder, a nonprofit group based in Stockholm that works to educate the public about disparities in health and wealth around the world — by offering animated interactive statistics online that help visitors spot trends on their own.

Hit the play button and an animated graphic, called Gapminder World, shows a constellation of brightly colored bubbles, each representing a different country, bouncing along over two centuries. Without ever having to view yawn-inducing numbers on gross domestic product per capita, you can watch some countries, like the United States, rapidly growing healthier and wealthier before your eyes while smaller bubbles, for countries like Congo, rise on the life expectancy axis even as they dip on the income line.

The advanced animation has let Dr. Rosling make wonky statistics about poverty as intuitive and potentially fascinating for viewers as a nature program about the Serengeti on TV. “If we show a herd of zebras, and one zebra has a bad leg and lags behind, you can see that immediately,” says Dr. Rosling, whose video clip from the BBC on health and wealth statistics has been viewed more than four million times on YouTube. “If one country gets left behind, you can see that, too.”

Visual analytics play off the idea that the brain is more attracted to and able to process dynamic images than long lists of numbers. But the goal of information visualization is not simply to represent millions of bits of data as illustrations. It is to prompt visceral comprehension, moments of insight that make viewers want to learn more.

“The purpose of visualization,” says Ben Shneiderman, founding director of the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory at the University of Maryland, “is insight, not pictures.”

The growing field has implications for companies, governments, academic institutions, nonprofit groups, news organizations and marketers — just about anybody who tries to convey huge amounts of information in visual, interactive forms. But advances, he says, come with both benefits and risks.

On the benefit side, people become more engaged when they can filter information that is presented visually and make discoveries on their own.

On the risk side, Professor Shneiderman says, tools as powerful as visualizations have the potential to mislead or confuse consumers. And privacy implications arise, he says, as increasing amounts of personal, housing, medical and financial data become widely accessible, searchable and viewable.

“The visual analytics research community works on these issues,” he says, “but more needs to be done.”

In the 1990s, Professor Shneiderman developed tree mapping, which uses interlocking rectangles to represent complicated data sets. The rectangles are sized and colored to convey different kinds of information, like revenue or geographic region, says Jim Bartoo, the chief executive of the Hive Group, a software company that uses tree mapping to help companies and government agencies monitor operational data. When executives or plant managers see the nested rectangles grouped together, he adds, they should be able to immediately spot anomalies or trends.

In one tree-map visualization of a sales department on the Hive Group site, red tiles represent underperforming sales representatives while green tiles represent people who exceeded their sales quotas. So it’s easy to identify the best sales rep in the company: the biggest green tile. But viewers can also reorganize the display — by region, say, or by sales manager — to see whether patterns exist that explain why some employees are falling behind.

“It’s the ability of the human brain to pick out size and color” that makes tree mapping so intuitive, Mr. Bartoo says. Information visualization, he adds, “suddenly starts answering questions that you didn’t know you had.”

For entertainment value, the Hive Group has also posted a tree map of the 100 most popular songs on iTunes, updated every 24 hours.

The fact that serious software companies are now tree mapping the pop charts is a sign that data visualization is no longer just a useful tool for researchers and corporations. It’s also an entertainment and marketing vehicle.

In 2009, for example, Stamen Design, a technology and design studio in San Francisco, created a live visualization of Twitter traffic during the MTV Video Music awards. In the animated graphic, floating bubbles, each displaying a photograph of a celebrity, expanded or contracted depending on the volume of Twitter activity about each star. The project provided a visceral way for viewers to understand which celebrities dominated Twitter talk in real time, says Eric Rodenbeck, the founder and creative director of Stamen Design.

Information visualization has changed substantially in the 10 years since the studio has been in business, Mr. Rodenbeck says. Designers once created visual representations of data that would steer viewers to information that seemed the most important or newsworthy, he says; now they create visualizations that contain attractive overview images and then let users direct their own interactive experience — wherever it may take them.

“It’s not about leading with a certain view anymore,” he says. “It’s about delivering the view that gets the most participation and engagement.”

TO that end, the company has just introduced an initial version of, a site that shows airline passengers a detailed satellite map of the landscape they are flying over — and lets them direct the view.

For passengers with Wi-Fi access who enter their airline and flight number on the site, displays more than just the terrain below. It also offers information bubbles highlighting different place names, local landmarks and tourist attractions like schools and botanical gardens, and photos of native fauna, like a blue jay.

On the ground, we may live in a world of T.M.I. — too much information. But Stamen Design is betting that we will relish rich images of ground data when we are flying several miles high.  

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