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There is something beautiful about making complex information palatable, understandable and even attractive. As the the amount of data released into the world grows, this challenge of assimilating masses of information rapidly will also grow, and the skills of visual designers, information architects and statisticians should be appreciated.
The main reference name in information visualisation is Edward Tufte who has produced beautifully illustrated and referenced volumes that deserve pride of place on the coffee table of 'info viz' fans. It is perhaps most obviously applied in the growing sector of creating 'data dashboards' to give people an overview of how their IT system / profits / overall business is performing with a quick visual scan.
Some of my favourite examples are those where the temporal aspects is brought to the fore as the unifying organising principle for presenting the data. This is the world of the timeline driven data dashboard. It leverages one of the things that we as humans are pretty good at (identifying and assimilating broad patterns especially visually) and combines it with something computers are good at (holding lots of structured, multi-faceted information).
Some of the best examples have been spawned by the need for people to understand the recession. For example, the UK Jobless statistics over the past couple years and the US hiring / job loss trends are elegantly presented in just enough detail for online news consumers trying to get a flavour of what's going on as quickly as possible.
They convey a tremendous amount in simple moving splodges of colour. There is no way that a data table could convey the bombshell of job losses that started in mid 2008 in the US northern Midwest, and spread to the coasts.
Other common examples of slick time-based information visualisation include the BBC weather map showing the forecast for the next couple days, and the Daddy of them all the Gapminder site that presents social and economic statistics across countries and time. The amount of data, and the ability to control it, is quite mind boggling and many an hour can be lost in chin scratching exploration of the data (well, by me at least). We liked Gapminder so much that we wrote a blog about it a few months ago.
People have a built in sense of time. A good visual designer will be able to take advantage of that and help present our complex world a little bit more simply.
This article only scratches the surface of information visualisation. If you know of any other great online examples (time based as above or not) please share them with other readers in the comments.