In the era of big data, there has never been so much information available – and it’s never been so important to find a way to make sense of that data. It’s not just a case of choosing an appropriate format but rather of dealing with the fact that data has context.
At one time, data was simple. Professionals worked with tables of numbers: think of an actuarial table with a list of expected death rates at particular ages. When they needed to convey a point to the public, they used a simple bar chart or line graph that made it easy to see a trend, even without crunching the individual numbers.
That was fine when people expected to view information solely as a graphic on the evening news, a short newspaper article, or a leaflet through the door explaining why only party X can win here. But it’s insufficient in an age when technology means we consume information at every spare moment, even as just a boredom killer. One famed estimate has it that 90% of the data in the world has been created in the last two years.
That has led to a need for increasingly sophisticated data visualisation that helps users comprehend multiple facts and sources at a glance. Witness the infographic: a sheet that may show half a dozen facts in differing visual formats, often using scale to make a clear point. Or the heat map, which adopts the easily recognisable medium of the weather forecast to show regional variations in everything from unemployment levels to hospital waiting lists.
Indeed, the latter example shows how effective data visualisation helps deal with the fact that data increasingly has multiple facets and may require dynamic visualisation such as interactive mapping. For example, place a list of average house prices by postcode and a graph of school league tables by council ward next to one another and you’ve got a mind-numbing session of manual comparisons and calculations to contend with. Overlay them on a single interactive map and you can instantly spot the perfect location for the ambitious parent of moderate means to go househunting.