Data Design - Solving Information Problems

Thu 15 October 2015

Recently, the crisis in Syria and the huge number of people fleeing the horrors of war is a much debated topic. Everybody including the media has been trying to analyse reasons and the wider range of consequences. Depending on our political standpoint, we tend to hear what we want to hear, or what we fear. Facts and figures fall behind, our source criticism can be sadly lacking. As always, good news doesn’t sell newspapers or clicks on the web. So we need a counter balance, and big data can provide it. One of the sources to counter the panicky media is Professor Hans Rosling and his Gapminder foundation, making very visual presentations of what the facts and figures actually tell us on a larger scale, in the longer perspective. If you worry about the refugee situation, you really should take a look at some of his presentations. Hans Rosling is using big data to help us comprehend and explain a very complex situation.

In many ways, data is the new oil, or the new soil – from it we can till and grow understanding and progress. However, data needs to be presented in a way that we can comprehend and process. Data design is solving that information problem; take a look at some interesting examples from David McCandless.

Spreadsheets are amazing tools, but the more data you collect, the harder it gets to interpret the spreadsheet. Unless you know what data you need and you know how to highlight it. Communicating the data to others around you – especially if they are not in your line of work – can be tricky. Luckily with computers we also got a lot of other tools beside spreadsheets. With the growth of the computer gaming generation, we are expecting instructions and information to be provided to us in a graphically understandable way, intuitively.

We all use our senses to grasp the world around us; visually, auditory or kinesthetic, going on gut feelings and non-verbal communication. Through the use of NLP - neuro linguistic programming - which has nothing to do with computers, your preferred way of tapping into information can be found. But unless you are locked in a cabin in the Himalayas, you are getting bombarded with information every day, and it takes a lot of effort to extrapolate the information you need, the information that is useful to you.

It took a while for the music industry in the early eighties to figure out what to do with music videos – besides just filming a band or an artist playing their instruments, performing their latest hit. The tools were there from the start. Movies have been made long before music videos, commercials have been using the media for a long time, but the convergence of music and video took a while to find its own form. Today a hit song is frequently accompanied by a video that is not just about the music or the stars behind it; it is selling a lifestyle and an attitude, and might even be a whole mini movie, telling a story, conveying so much more than just the lyrics. It is a little like that with big data today - there is already a convergence taking place. We have the tools; we need to find out how to use them.

If you are selling knowledge in the form of data, just increasing the amount of data does not necessarily make the product better. Data needs to be presented, for us to understand how to use it. Of course it helps if you are spreadsheet-literate, but we still need to communicate around the data to make them useful, and that means transforming big data into something we can all understand. If you are buying big data, make sure your supplier has the necessary tools to help you harvest the produce of what is planted in that soil or you might end up with just data. Lots of it.

Just data is not information, and just information is not necessarily communication.