Information is beautiful - but can it also be BI?

David Reed, director of research and editor-in-chief, DataIQ

Last week saw the latest set of winners in the Kantar Information is Beautiful awards announced. Once again, it revealed how incredibly diverse the approaches to data visualisation can be. Gold in the technology, science, medicine or health category went to Kim Albrecht for a study of scientists’ career timelines which looked at when they are most likely to peak. In the sports, games and leisure catgory, the gold winner was an interactive study by Moritz Stefaner and Yuri Vishnevsky on the Rhythm of Food, looking at Google Trends data around searches for food stuffs.

In between fell everything from mapping the nuclear threat to the unlikely odds of making it big in the music industry. Socially-engaged and gender-focused data work featured strongly in this year’s long-list, too. 

David McCandless, Awards founder and author of Information is Beautiful, said: “In this era of ‘fake news’ and social media overload, data visualisation is one of the most powerful ways to get to the truth behind complex stories. This year’s winners show that data graphics can illuminate complex topics like migration, the gender pay gap and climate change. But are also just as suited to fun topics like the artistry of craft beer, fixing toilets and the Italian surfing scene.”

If the diversity of the subject matter is striking, two other trends are also visible. The first is that data visualisation is moving out of its historical home of the creative design agency. As McCandless warned: “Experienced data storytellers should watch out though - some of the year’s most brilliant work comes from students.”

The second trend is the widespread use of big data sources, such as Google Trends or its Quick, Draw! game which won gold for the analysis by Quartz of how over 100,000 different people draw a circle. While it is self-evident that large-scale data sets demand creative ways of being made intelligible, there is also an influence working in the opposite direction - creatives are having to adapt to big data and increasingly use conventional tools in their work. 

This is leading to a tension between the historical practitioners of creative-led data visualisation and the new generation. Nowhere is this more evident than in the fact that the community prize, based on votes by visitors to the IIB site, went to the annual report of the ERGO Hestia Group, “Network", by Hanna Dyrcz. While drawing on data and image analysis as well as coding and graphic design, the output was a classic example of creative print.

ShipMapDuncan Clark, founder of Flourish, is only too well-aware of this push-pull effect. A gold winner last year for, a one-off project mapping the movements of marine traffic around the globe, he has spent the time since in a transformation into a software business.

“There has traditionally been a distinction between the beautiful, one-off, handmade projects and tools that visualise data such as Tableau,” he told DataIQ in an interview during the run up to the awards night. “I set out to make a tool that would allow anybody, regardless of whether they know coding, to create high-end projects rather than being limited to commoditised views.”

The result is Flourish which two years ago was a two-person design agency that has pivoted to become an eight-person start-up data visualisation developer. To do that, Clark had to stop taking commissions for those one-off projects and start to understand coding. “I downed tools and started building the tool in an incubator, doing a venture capital round to build the team,” he explained. “When we started, I was the story teller and we had one coder - now there are seven coders and me.”

“Things are changing at pace. All the nice stuff in data visualisation has been done as one-off projects which are very time-consuming and are not available to most people, but they have elements that are broadly applicable,” he said. His own IIB award-winning work led to a string of requests to produce something similar for other clients which he had to turn down because the data set and code were bespoke and there was no easy way to transfer them into new projects.

With Flourish, the intention is to allow users to “put data in, change the colours, publish your own views” and perhaps to make it a marketplace for Java script as users share their own outputs with the community. 

“Hundreds of millions of people are using Excel and it seems unfair that they can’t create something beautiful or more advanced to visualise their data without going to an agency and spending tens of thousands of pounds,” said Clark.

Still in beta, Flourish intends to make itself available for free to newsrooms, reflecting the way in which data journalists have been leading the way for mainstreaming of data visualisations. Clark himself used to be a journalist at The Guardian which has been one of the pioneers in this field.

It is the visibility of these presentations that has created a climate in which business users want more than simple charts - even the dynamic versions available in business intelligence tools. As this year’s IIB Awards revealed, the gap is closing between the bespoke and the BI.

Knowledge and strategy director, DataIQ
David is developing the framework for soft skills and career development among data and analytics practitioners. He continues to be editor-in-chief and research director for DataIQ.