Hot data: The art of the infographic

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It’s official. Graphs are sexy. From the blogger who charts his every waking moment to thebusiness magazines that are dispensing with text entirely, this is the golden age of ‘infographics’.Clare Dwyer Hogg meets the pioneers who are making information beautiful

At the end of 2010, the financial glossy Bloomberg Businessweek, like many other magazines and newspapers, published a special "review of the year" issue. Dispensing with words to describe the events of the financial year, it used 289 pictures and 61 charts for this gargantuan task. Even the index consisted of charts. That's quite a radical departure for a text-based magazine.

Or so you might think, until you look at what else is going on in journalism. Every week, GOOD, an online American magazine specialising in bite-size news, features a "transparency" – a richly detailed, heavily researched topic (the conflict in Afghanistan, say, or a who's who in the Mexican drug wars) that it presents in picture format. GOOD isn't even the first publication to do this. Its creators were inspired by Wired magazine's "infoporn" section, which uncovered statistics otherwise buried in spreadsheets, and made them look interesting. New York Magazine was a forerunner, too, and is still a beacon in the non-written storytelling trade: fun graphics telling the tale of the biggest rapper – Jay-Z vs Eminem (the stats said Jay-Z won; more money and clout) – or more serious explorations of political affiliations in NYC.

The trend for interpreting the world around us in charts and graphics, making statistics suddenly accessible and arresting, also arrived in Britain. At the beginning of the year, David McCandless, the (British) author of Information is Beautiful – a thick book of facts and figures, presented in artistic graphic form – was invited onto Newsnight to talk about his trade. McCandless found himself defending his use of pictures, rather than words, to disseminate information. He explained that it made information accessible. The opposition (Neville Brody, the graphic designer most associated with The Face), argued that this new phenomenon made attractive wallpaper, not journalism. Either way, we have entered the age of the infographic.

A month after the Newsnight experience, and in something of a more relaxed environment, McCandless, a print journalist for over 20 years, explains how he came to find himself at the vanguard of a graphic revolution. Three years ago, he explains, he started drawing his research, as a visual aid. "I remember looking at one of these sketches and thinking – I don't need to write this article," he says. Hundreds of infographics and one hardback compendium later, he is part of a movement that is slowly but surely coming above ground.

McCandless's skill is in sifting through mounds of raw data, and presenting that information in a way that our minds can easily process – or, at least, that navigates the bulwarks of our prejudice. "Data can be boring and dry," McCandless admits, "and often needs visualisation or warming up to human context." And this goes way beyond pie charts. After he had his own epiphany, McCandless began – what else – Googling to see if anyone else was doing the same thing. "It was a little bit in the ghetto," he says. "In the science world, visualisation looked horrendous. In the design world, it was beautiful but meaningless." And so began the task to wed visual aesthetics to genuinely interesting information. "There's the potential to create perfect expression that you can't do in other medium," he says. McCandless estimates that 80 per cent of his effort goes into research, the rest on design. The point, he stresses, is to optimise information, not simplify it. And while detractors say that it is McCandless who is distilling the information and, guided by his own prejudices, decides what's important, McCandless counters that in fact he lists all his information sources; and, really, what's the difference between that and a written news story?

The difference is that the average, time-pressed reader might be tempted not to plough through a written article about global expenditure. One look at an infographic gives you a pretty good idea of the biggest spends, and where they're made. McCandless's Billion-Dollar-O-Gram is a case in point. At a glance, his graphic made up of different-sized rectangles looks like a collection of swatches of paint for a smart home. Purple dominates. That's because it's the colour-code for "fighting". That big purple rectangle, the biggest of all, is the estimated amount that will be spent on the Iraq war ($3,000bn). And that sliver of mauve, close by? Predicted cost of the war in 2003 ($60bn). It certainly looks small compared to the lovely lavender box which shows the actual spend, four years later ($133bn).

Information can look beautiful, even if it tells ugly truths. In 2009, Ory Okolloh gave the budding world of infographics a radical new sense of purpose. A Harvard graduate from Kenya, she had a realisation. As the writer of the outspoken blog Kenyan Pundit, she received lots of e-mails about atrocities and deaths during the post-election violence that she felt were being under-reported by the media and government officials. In response, she created a web platform called Ushahidi – Swahili for "testimony". It was, in effect, an infographic that told the story in real time. In an example of "crowdsourcing", ordinary citizens would upload information about what they were witnessing to a map, and the reports would become visualisations. The categories that appeared on the map weren't pretty – riots, deaths, looting, rape – but they painted a virtual picture of statistics that were happening on the ground.

Soon Okolloh's image became a living organism, a source for democratising information in a climate where fractured reporting and corruption combined to disenfranchise the Kenyan citizens – as well as a resource for aid agencies to get to locations they otherwise would not have known were in difficulty. A similar map of the Democratic Republic of Congo followed, and soon Al Jazeera were using the Ushahidi platform for their coverage of conflict in Gaza. At the end of last year, Okolloh stepped down from Ushahidi to become Google's policy manager for Africa; the art of the infographic is now on the corporate radar, too.

Infographics have been noticed by the political world, as well. At the end of last year, David Cameron hosted a delegation – that included David McCandless and other politically-active programmers – on a fact-finding trip about participatory democracy and technology in India. Data projects that used simple tools to communicate with – and solve issues for – the grassroots, featured strongly. One infographic the delegation saw was created by information designer Arun Ganesh, who was also a highly frustrated user of public transport. The official map for bus routes in Chennai is complex, to say the least: a degree in orienteering is handy if you're one of the four million travellers needing to decipher the mish-mash of 5,000 separate buses and bus routes. Given that the government's map has been "under construction" for six years, Ganesh took matters into his own hands. He used crowdsourcing to get travellers to map their local routes and upload the details onto an online application he created. Around 600 people took part, and within three days Ganesh had enough information to construct a clear graphic map that showed bus journeys, as well as – crucially – areas that weren't serviced. (He took it to the local government who were enthusiastic, but Indian law decrees maps must be to a certain scale, so it couldn't be used; it is available online, though.)

Back in the UK, the NHS, charities and local government are just some who have been interested in employing McCandless's approach. Perhaps the interest comes in the acknowledgement that most of us are never too far away from a computer screen and, as it's on the screen that infographics really come to life, this is pretty much unchartered territory for advertisers. But even its most passionate proponent sounds a note of caution on the use of infographics for official purposes. "The danger is that infographics are quite powerful, and the quality of design gives a seal of authenticity and authority that people don't question," he says. This is why he always shares his data sources. "You can really lie with visualising statistics."

Over at the Office for National Statistics, head of design, Nick Bryant, doesn't rule out the development of infographics there as a way of presenting information in the future, but says the potential pitfalls are rife. "We have to provide reliable and impartial statistics," he says, "and so it's important to make sure that we're not telling a hidden story with the graphics and visuals. We've got to be accurate, not misleading."

It's certainly true, though, that infographics have the capacity to entertain. Since 2005, New Yorker Nicholas Felton has created an annual report of his daily life – using data visualisation alone. It started as a fun project for friends and family, and then he realised that other people were interested, too. Every year since, he has created a detailed online survey – called the Feltron Report – with different themes. The statistics vary, but one may, for instance, discover the number of coffees Felton drank one year, or how many different animals he ate, how many postcards he sent, or kilometres he ran.

For the 2009 report, he asked every person with whom he had a "meaningful encounter" to fill out an online survey of the meeting. "From parents to old friends, to people I met for the first time, to my dentist" were asked to contribute. Although he describes the data set as "messy and overwhelming", the results are fascinating – even if you don't know him. In total, 1,761 encounters were logged, in three countries; 210 participants, living in over nine US states, completed 560 surveys. The shortest relationship was five minutes. Average activities per encounter? 2.4. Instances of laughter? 14.

You see? Compulsive viewing, despite being the fairly prosaic activities of a complete stranger. Perhaps this is partly because humans are inherently nosy, but also because, in this process, one man can become everyman. It is not unreasonable to think that our lives might pan out in a similar way. Wouldn't it be interesting to know how you spend a year, in raw data? That is why the online tool Daytum has been a hit. Conceived by Felton and a business partner, Ryan Case, it collects, counts and communicates personal statistics. It's free (available in an app for iPhone form, too) and lets you tally the amount you eat and drink, how much you walk, what you read... and, if you're brave enough, there's even a category called Time Wasted. There is something fascinating about presenting everyday mundanities in a format that, at a glance, summarises the experience of being alive.

Physical experiences, at least. For emotional ones, there's always the We Feel Fine project. Since August 2005, Sep Kamvar and Jonathan Harris have been collecting and collating – "harvesting", they call it – human feelings, by trawling the web. Every few minutes, while you've been reading this article in fact, their programme has been finding new blog posts that contain the words "I feel" and "I am feeling". They record the sentence, identify the feeling, and can usually also obtain the age, gender and geographical location of the writer. Local weather conditions can therefore be recorded, too.

And so, with a database that has a collection of several million human feelings (increasing by 15,000-20,000 new feelings per day), they can come to conclusions about all sorts of questions: do Europeans feel sad more often than Americans? Do women feel fat more often than men? Does rainy weather affect how we feel? What are the most representative feelings of female New Yorkers in their twenties? What do people feel right now in Baghdad? Which are the happiest cities in the world? The saddest? The resulting infographics, are, they say, artwork "authored by everyone. It will grow and change as we grow and change, reflecting what's on our blogs, what's in our hearts, what's in our minds. We hope it makes the world seem a little smaller, and we hope it helps people see beauty in the everyday ups and downs of life."

The duo behind We Feel Fine are not just techies with time on their hands – Sep Kamvar, who is now a Consulting Professor of Computational Mathematics at Stanford University, used to be the "engineering lead of personalisation" at Google, and has artwork in the permanent collections of MoMA in New York.

Jonathan Harris is a Princeton graduate who has created the world's largest time capsule, which was translated into 10 languages. His artwork has been exhibited at MoMA and the Pompidou Centre, and he describes his work as designing systems that explain the human world through computer science, visual art, and anthropology. Because choosing an infographic to convey facts is, in a sense, about choosing an artistic medium.

The designer Stefanie Posavec conceived of the book Writing Without Words while studying at Saint Martin's; she meticulously worked her way through Jack Kerouac's On the Road (manually: she couldn't get her hands on an electronic version in 2006), and devised infographics that revealed themes through colour, types of punctuation used and forms of grammar. She calls herself an "illustrator of information", and has no problem facing her critics. "Some people get mad, and ask why I do this instead of leaving it to words, but I look at it as another way of gaining insight into text and compelling people to get excited about literature," she says. "It was a labour of love, of working carefully to analyse something to work it out better for myself... just like photographers will take a picture of something mundane and find beauty, I'm interested in the hidden beauty that you don't see."

Art and science are colliding – simultaneously, albeit in different forms – all over the world, and beneath the fun (or funny, or beautiful, or simple) exterior, it feels that something important is going on. There is a sea change in how we experience and use information. Morgan Clendaniel, deputy editor of GOOD magazine, is alive to this. He's concerned that the explosion of the medium could dilute its effectiveness. "I'm worried that if people make bad infographics – us included – that it will zap the power of the medium." He is aware, too, that the format could facilitate the dumbing down of information. The point is to distil knowledge into a shape, rather than obfuscate with a torrent of words – but with those boundaries, it's never possible to show every detail.

"We're working with finite space, and when we're talking about something complicated, we can leave something out in a responsible way," he says. "That's why it's the tip of the iceberg, and not the whole thing." The infographic, in its best form, should invite a closer look. And that's where the viewer picks up the responsibility.

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