Unbound Edition. Meaningful conversations about brand, from Davis Brand Capital.



The Siren Call of “Data Porn 2.0”

The evolution of data visualization software is merging data and art, and allowing us to convey and digest complicated information in exciting new ways.  But used irresponsibly, these technologies have the potential to usher in a new wave of “data porn,” where the dazzle trumps the data.

I’m not sure who coined the phrase “data porn,” but I interpret it as a cynical and unfortunately all-to-accurate term describing the organizational tendency to become obsessed, easily distracted or seduced by data presented in a “sexy” fashion.  And the newfound ability to present complex data sets in visually elegant ways means that  In the years to come, consumers and conveyors of information will need to be ever more vigilant against its seductive powers.

Ours is an increasingly visual society.  Simple data visualizations have even worked their way into the very fabric of pop culture.  Take user-generated site GraphJam (www.graphjam.com), for instance.  I love it.  Here’s one recently posted graph.  As a man, I apparently have a lot to look forward to:

 

Or consider the new sketch show “Important Things with Demitri Martin,” whose comedy involves a lot of diagrams, flowcharts and visual gags drawn on whiteboards:

And I probably don’t even need to mention CNN’s “Magic Wall” from the 2008 campaign season.

Today’s culture expects data to be available instantaneously and everywhere.  And we are ever savvier in our ability to consume a lot of data simultaneously (I think if I would have tried watching today’s cable news networks 10 years ago, I may have had a seizure).  Perhaps because we are so overloaded with information, we have come to expect data to be packaged in more elegant, more easily digested and more aesthetically pleasing ways.

The New York Times is leading the pack in visualizing data for online “newspaper” readers and giving them the tools to create their own visualizations.  Others at UnboundEdition have pointed to the implications of the New York Times data visualizations for the struggling newspaper model and the distinction between data visualizations and storytelling. This is perhaps the most intriguing collection of NYT data visualizations I’ve seen to date, linked on a terrific blog forwarded by a colleague in response to my crowd-sourced research post.

Here’s one example from the collection depicting the use of the words “hope” and “crisis” between 1981 and 2009:

While the visualization is exciting, it puts style over substance in many ways.  Simpler depictions, such as a bar graph or line chart, would likely provide a more easily interpreted snapshot.  While my intent is not to criticize the designer’s artistic experimentation with the NYT API tool, it does point to the inevitable temptation for conveyors of information to use new visualization tools to dazzle rather than inform.

Perhaps the true power of new forms of data visualization is that many are dynamic.  Consider this network model depicting the relationships in the New Testament:

By clicking on individual nodes within the network diagram, you can hone in on specific individuals and view their relationships.  You can drag nodes over using your cursor to highlight direct ties.  Static, the visualization is virtually indecipherable.  Dynamic, it is much more useful. but it takes a good deal of work to untangle its complexity.

The collection of New York Times API visualizations and the Many Eyes network diagram are just a few examples of where graphical depictions of data are headed.  There is no denying their power to present information in fresh and compelling ways.  There are many, many fine examples of leading-edge data visualizations, and the possibilities are very exciting.  There is no denying science and art are melding in new and intriguing ways, as in this example depicting the New York Times use of the word “organics” from 1981-2009:

However, marketing professionals, as well as news organizations and other conveyors of information, must not be tempted by the siren call of the new data porn.  Today it is easier than ever to enhance the perceived credibility or importance of data using widely available online tools.  Here are a few simple guidelines to help avoid the potential pitfalls these new data visualization tools represent:

1. Keep it simple
New visualization tools make it possible to cram more variables into one data representation than more traditional depictions.  Oftentimes this is highly useful.  However, it can quickly overload the viewer.  Let “less is more” be your guiding principle.    Some new visualizations border on being as complex as the raw data themselves.

2. Put substance over style
Never include more variables, smaller increments, more colors or shapes, etc. simply to make the visualization more aesthetically pleasing.

3.  Avoid propagandizing your data
Sometimes compelling imagery has the ability to trump logic and rationale thought.  It is easy to distract with the “shiny new bell” of a cool data visualization.  If a visualization is beautiful but the data behind it are weak or irrelevant, no sophisticated visual treatment can save it.

4. Bring it to life
PowerPoint animation schemes never did much to actually improve visual communication.  But new visualizations can.  Whenever possible, use animation and interactivity to dive deeper into the data from a single entry point as opposed to graph after graph.  But first, refer back to Guidelines 2 and 3.  Avoid animations that distract the viewer rather than aid them in their interpretation.

5. Never visualize just to visualize
Closely related to Guideline 2.  J
ust because we have these newfound tools, it doesn’t mean we should always use them.  If a simple depiction will communicate the information more efficiently and effectively, use it.

As always, clarity is key.  I worry many will utilize data visualizations to add to the noise rather than building meaning.  But disruptive technologies always have tradeoffs.  And the softer-core versions of Data Porn 2.0 can be powerful, informative and artistic – provided they’re rooted in the data, not the dazzle.



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