Each year creative minds from music, film, and emerging technologies converge in Austin, Texas for a week of panels and performances at the South by Southwest conference, known as SXSW. Ben Fry — who’s been helping GE make its mountains of healthcare data more accessible through a series of data visualizations — is on the Interactive Infographics panel today at 3:30 p.m. at SXSW. We asked him to write a guest post, which appears below and is co-authored by his GE counterpart, Camille Kubie, on why the interactive presentation of data is showing great promise as a new form of media.
We’ll never have less data. So, how do we digest it and use it to make complex issues easier to understand? A recent and much cited study out of the University of California, San Diego found that the amount of data consumed by U.S. individuals has grown by 5.4% per year since 1980. In 2008 the average American consumed over a hundred thousand words and billions of bytes of information during an average day — not including information consumed at work.
This data deluge presents a unique set of challenges for consumers, designers, and businesses alike. More data on its own does not necessarily provide clarity. Usually, more data simply confuses the conversation, whether exploring health care costs or evaluating alternative energy solutions.
How can critical questions be tackled intelligently when the information gets in the way? While faster computers and bigger hard disks have made us really good at measuring and recording things, we have not kept up with how to present the resulting information. Consumers face the twin problems of determining the credibility of data sets and accessing those data sets in forms that are easily absorbed. In other words, what should we ignore and how can we “see” relevant data more clearly?
These challenges are rapidly moving data visualization out of research laboratories and into the public arena. Businesses and designers are teaming up around data — mining the information and shaping it into something we can more easily process, understand and use. In this collaboration, businesses play a critical role. To contribute meaningfully, corporations have to get comfortable with data transparency. Business has the unique opportunity to share valuable and credible data sets that they already collect as part of their everyday operations. By providing the data and resources to shape that information in a more accessible way, business can help advance the public conversation on society’s toughest challenges.
Businesses can also create value for their partners and customers by actively working to simplify complexity. Practitioners of data visualization are the architects in this collaboration. They contribute their knowledge of statistics, data mining, graphic design and information visualization as they consider how best to organize and insightfully present millions of data points, often from data that’s continually changing.
By its very nature, data visualization can be exceptionally flexible with an ability to be both aesthetically driven as well as utilitarian. Great visualizations are business tools, communication platforms, and works of art. The designs are as varied as the solutions but the good ones share one thing in common: they present complex information clearly and intelligently.