As data visualization matures as a design discipline, good-looking, easy-to-understand charts and graphs are just the starting point. A new generation of data designers and their clients expect more from their data sets than an Excel file: more emotion, more storytelling, more motion, more meaning, more understanding.
Data journalism at The Washington Post—it’s a thing
Harry Stevens calls himself a “data journalist,” which is, as he explains, “not that different from journalist. Appending [data] to the front doesn’t change the fact that you are a journalist.” Instead of interrogating human sources, he says, “you interrogate data sets.” Of course, learning how to read a spreadsheet, use Microsoft Excel, write code to scrape data and turn the results into a pivot table doesn’t hurt. These abilities mean “you can write a lot of stories other journalists can’t do,” Stevens says.
Interrogating data has led Stevens to uncover corruption in India, discover the hottest subway cars on the New York City MTA and interpret meteorological data to prove our planet is warming—a story that earned Stevens and his colleagues at The Washington Post a 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting.
Stevens is humbled by the accolade. “I don’t have the pure design skills that a lot of designers have. I can’t draw. I didn’t go to design school. I’m not great with typography. But I did train on how and when to represent data with a bar instead of a circle, and how that can communicate the information you want to get across.”
It seems to be working. To illustrate how quickly a virus like the one that causes COVID-19 can spread, Stevens recently created a deceptively simple piece of visualization design he called “Simulitis.” In writing and animation, Stevens pictures the spread of a fictional disease called simulitis over time and space. Instead of a static chart that represents a snapshot of data, Stevens’s animations depict rectangles filled with particles that move at random, bounce off the walls and into each other. Stevens explains, “The green circles represent healthy people. The red circles represent sick people. Every time a red circle bounces into a green circle, that circle becomes red.”
In all, Stevens’s article includes four simulations, “a free-for-all, an attempted quarantine, moderate social distancing and extensive social distancing.” Run the “free-for-all” simulation, in which the circles move unchecked by either walls or distance, and in a matter of seconds, all the green circles turn red. In contrast, the extensive social distancing simulation, which models just one out of eight people moving in a shared space, depicts a barely rising pandemic curve.
“It’s a crude representation of reality, but it does a decent job of modeling the dynamics of a spreading disease in the real world,” Stevens says. The underlying nature of pandemics is that the rate of infection increases exponentially. The infection goes from two to four to eight, and suddenly you are in the millions. That exponential increase is difficult for most people to understand. Until they see it.
And see it, people have. Quicker than you can say “R-naught,” Stevens’s article was tweeted by former president Obama, and became the most-viewed page in the history of The Washington Post. “I still can’t wrap my head around that,” Stevens says.
Where we work is how we work
At Hyperakt, the 20-year-old Brooklyn-based social impact design studio founded by Julia Zeltser and Deroy Peraza, designing with data means striking a balance between work that is beautiful and work that is easy to understand. According to Peraza, finding that balance means doing the research, understanding the substance of the content and then finding an emotionally resonant way to present your ideas. The secret sauce, Peraza says, is “empathy.”
That empathy was put to the test for a recent project sponsored by coworking company WeWork. To understand the future of work in the next decade, WeWork partnered with the Aspen Institute to conduct a survey of 30,000 respondents from around the world, then asked Hyperakt to make sense of “the biggest spreadsheet I’ve ever seen,” Peraza says.
The survey examines trends such as automation, migration to cities and climate change. To help users engage in a meaningful way with all those numbers, Peraza and his team went to work figuring out how to parse the data, simplify it and communicate it in a way that’s understandable. Hyperakt eventually teased out of the data a tour de force of data design and motion graphics called the City Index.
The City Index lets users drill down into the data to examine characteristics for 50 cities around the world. The Index slices and dices the data set in almost infinite variety, enabling users to compare how cities rank from affordability and economy to walkability and the arts.
A color-coded chart provides a heat map of sentiment based on the replies of people who live in these cities. A click is all it takes to discover that Buenos Aires ranks lowest in innovation and Atlanta comes in last in walkability, while Shanghai ranks highest in innovation and Washington, DC, comes in first in walkability.
The light bulb moment for Peraza was figuring out the way the City Index can get used over and over. “From a system perspective, the data changes, but the Index can remain the same,” he explains. “It took some doing to get to a paradigm that ranked cities on a one-to-five scale, sorted the cities in stack order and color-coded a sentiment scale.”
The result helps explain not only where we work, but also how we work, and why we live where we live.
LGND follows the money
When LGND cofounder Mike Aleo worked in the White House as art director during the Obama administration, his goal was nothing less than democratizing data, communicating it to the American people and making sure it was easy to understand. In other words, “How do you distill a 70-page white paper into a single infographic?” Aleo says.
“In the past, a think tank might have put out a 100-page white paper or a PDF, with dozens of tables,” Aleo says. It might have been read by a handful of wonky economists.
But that’s not the goal at digital storytelling studio LGND. Today, the Washington, DC–based studio’s clients want reports that generate an emotional response. “And that’s where digital storytelling comes in,” Aleo says.
The studio’s background working in documentary video “has opened our eyes to the parallels between a film and a website,” Aleo says. “We ask how can we build in an arc, include a twist or reveal a surprise. How do you weave that into [the user interface]. Then we figure out how to pull a rabbit out of the hat in a way that keeps the magic of the story going and connects on an emotion level.”
In 2018, Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, and Ian Hathaway, research director at the Center for American Entrepreneurship, collaborated to create the Rise of the Global Startup City: The New Map of Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital. The report analyzed more than 100,000 venture deals in the PitchBook database in more than 300 metropolitan areas spanning 60 countries. They asked LGND to make it make sense.
The problem was that the report generated an insurmountable amount of data in an Excel file. As Aleo recalls, “You could scroll all day and never figure out what’s happening.” To reveal the truth obscured in all that data, LGND asked, “What if there was just one view of the data, presented in a single panel that included four or five different filters?”
Using a map to pinpoint investment activity, the Rise of the Global Startup City website frames four main questions that enable users to filter the data across the number of deals, total capital invested, geographic basis and per capita investment. The questions that LGND asks the data are simple. And the answers can have global impact. For example: Which cities have the highest percentage growth in venture investment? Bangkok, Hangzhou, Jakarta... The United States doesn’t even crack the top ten. It’s a wake-up call to US policy makers.
The result has been profiled in the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg CityLab, Axios and The Washington Post. Author Richard Florida called it “the most beautiful report I have ever seen.”
Finding information in large data sets, uncovering trends and getting to the heart of the story, then discovering the best way to communicate that, is the job of data designers. Their work tells us where money flows, where startups start up, how we live, how we get sick and, hopefully, how we can stay well. ca