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The art of numbers: Who knew Big Data could look so cool?

Narasu Rebbapragada | Sept. 19, 2013
Bold graphics tell a human story that spreadsheets cannot.

"They help people who don't have backgrounds in data see what data is," says Nathan Yau, author of the Flowing Data visualization blog and the recently released book Data Points: Visualization That Means Something.

Good visualizations are apolitical
In addition to being beautiful, visualizations seem trustworthy and objective because they're rooted in hard numbers—lots and lots of numbers. They allow visitors to explore raw data to discover their own story, says Periscopic's Citraro.

When Periscopic released its gun-violence visualization in February 2013, it received the expected accolades from gun opponents and criticism from gun advocates. But the irrefutability of the data, as well as the sheer volume of it, allowed the numbers to speak for themselves, Citraro says. And as a result, the visualization created a new conversation between the two sides of a polarizing issue.

"It's not drawing those normal lines in the sand that we tend to draw," says Citraro's partner and Periscopic cofounder Kim Rees.

The current crop of visualization experts are a passionate, collaborative, and vibrant community. They are artists, engineers, coders, statisticians, and scientists. They have blogs. They converse on Twitter. They get together informally at data-visualization meet-ups throughout the country, and more formally at annual conferences such as the Eyeo Festival and OpenVis Conf (Open Web Data Visualization Conference). Many of them create visualizations for academic, corporate, and personal interests to help advance the form.

"The camaraderie is strange," says Periscopic's Citraro. "They don't have reservations about sharing their ideas. It's so refreshing."

The community has some corporate champions. General Electric is a cofounder of Visualizing.org, a site for creators and enthusiasts to share ideas. GE also employs visualizations to communicate the impact of its energy, health, and transportation technologies, which are largely hidden from the public eye.

In addition, GE hosts contests that challenge data enthusiasts to use Internet-collected data to solve key industry problems, such as flight delays. A current contest, Flight Quest, asks participants to use flight and weather data to help airlines shave minutes (and money lost) from crowded flight schedules. Phase I of Flight Quest resulted in a data visualization that showed the economic benefit of a medium-size airline fleet saving 2.5 minutes of time per flight for one year: $26 million.

Visualizing natural science
Visualizations are particularly effective in helping the public understand natural-sciences data. And for 25 years, the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio has been creating thousands of them. "Our data is real physical data of the real world," says Studio leader Horace Mitchell.

Changes in environmental data collected over time can be hard to notice in their raw form. Such is the case with Arctic sea ice, which melts throughout the summer and reaches its annual minimum size each September. Scientists use this benchmark to measure the effect of climate change on the Earth. But watching sea ice melt can be as interesting as watching paint dry—unless you can help people see it in context.

 

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