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.
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.