By Jack Miles
Wednesday 2nd December saw the 4th Kantar Information is Beautiful Awards take place in London. Data visualisation has grown into a well-known discipline in its own right thanks to the work of David McCandless, Hans Rosling and others. This discipline has grown from strength to strength in recent years alongside society’s digitisation, datatainment and the commercial obsession with big data.
What with the research and insight industry being in the business of telling stories with data, we are well placed to learn from an evening that celebrated data visualisation and journalism. That said, as researchers, it is always our instinct to ask questions – and reflecting on this event was no different.
Lessons To Be Learned
Commercial research regularly discusses the value of data driven narratives. However, 99% of the time this story is told in a static way. Motion Infographics – such as Vox’s Syrian War in 5 Mins – increase the power of data narrative exponentially by integrating motion into their visualisations. Resultantly, an increased quantity of information is communicated with increased conciseness and clarity. Given the volume of data and the notoriously short time researchers have to engage with stakeholders, increased motion in our visualisations offers great opportunity.
Basic Is Beautiful
Some of the visualisations showcased – such as Sara Piccolomini’s Freedom in Countries – were extremely complex in their presentation. Comparatively, visualisations such as the Surgeon Scorecard by Sisi Wei, Olga Pierce and Marshall Allen, at their core, were the well packaged fundamentals of the majority of most quantitative researcher’s tool kit – bar charts and such the like. What this demonstrates is that as an industry we needn’t view data visualisation as a distant discipline. We have the ability to use our fundamental tools in a well marketed format to make a much bigger impact than we think.
Generate. Visualise. Disseminate. Excite
An awards ceremony would not be an awards ceremony without random bouts of cheering from the audience – albeit typically supporting their own entries. Information Is Beautiful was different. Attendees were clapping, cheering and gasping all entries throughout the evening. This highlights that data visualisation is truly a field that can wow and excite an audience. As researchers, the desire to excite a client with our work is something that should be a priority – advancing our visualisations like Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec et al is clearly a springboard for this.
Questions To Be Posed
Information is Beautiful, But Is It Always Insightful?
The aesthetic nature of data visualisation is undisputable. However, after having the ‘wow’ moment at the beauty of a data visualisation there is always a lingering ‘what does this all mean?’ moment. Static visualisations often fail to pull together their content in a directive way. In the commercial space where the readers of data stories want to be told which way to go after they’ve put the data down, this is something data visualizers need to consider in the future.
They’ve Got The Power, Have We?
The visualisations on display were not only incredibly powerful in the way they displayed information, but often the data they communicated was on exceptionally powerful topics – migration and health for example. How powerful can we make visualisations around the more vanilla areas of commercial research? It’s debateable. The inference to be made here is that advanced visualisation is not always the answer, but where it is the answer for commercial researchers, in my mind, is on the topics that touch a wide stakeholder audience and have highly strategic ramifications.
Data Visualisation is Amazing, But Is It Commercially Viable?
The commercial world, as a sector, are one of the biggest holders and users of data. Therefore, it was surprising to see a lack of visualisations from what would typically be labelled the commercial sector. Furthermore, very few visualisations told commercially orientated stories on topics such as brands and products. Why was this? Clearly the pinnacle of visualisations require great time input – is data visualisation of this level not yet agile enough to meet commercial realities? Given the increased presence of procurement in the marketing and research space, we also have to ask, is investment in data visualisation not valued yet? Is the visualisation and corporate infusion of data perceived as a nice-to-have? Possibly. But in a data driven business culture, one would hope this will change.
So to researchers, we need to open our arms and embrace visualisation advancements to enable us to excite our clients on the most important of business matters. To data visualisers, please help us to do so by offering agile solutions that not only tell a story, but to give direction as well. With data visualisation being seen as the foremost skill in our industry by the recent GRIT Report, bringing these two items together is more imperative than ever.
Jack Miles, Research Director, Northstar Research Partners, @northstarlondon