Putting together a chart or a graphic that tries to share an insight is one of the most interesting parts of my work. Perhaps even more interesting though, is working out what people have actually taken away in their heads.
Most all of us have played Chinese whispers, and we totally get that the things we say aren’t always the things people hear. Sometimes though this isn’t just what we say and how it’s changed. Sometimes it’s what we seem to have implied, even if we didn’t mean to imply anything at all. Watching this whole other set of communication in how graphics communicate information can really stretch your mind.
A really cool way of seeing the impact of something like this is looking at the map of the London underground versus the actual map of London (thanx Infosthetics). Another way to see an impact is to look at diagram like the one below. If you saw it as a conceptual diagram then you might not think anything of the relative sizing of groups, but if you saw it as a true Venn diagram where shapes and overlaps represented meaningful relationships, sizes and overlaps your interpretation would be very different.
I try to be aware of what the graphic I build might be saying to someone beyond the thing I am trying to communicate, but generally all doing this does is teach me is that people can be very creative in applying meaning. There is a movement at hand to to ensure news infographics are based in fact and have some integrity. But how would we even know?
It’s a fun challenge isn’t it 🙂
PS. “Data isn’t like your kids. You don’t have to pretend to love them equally” – Amanda Cox (New York Times Graphic Editor)
The Rally to restore Sanity and or Fear was held recently with bunches of great signs on display. This one caught my eye for many reasons. Its simple. Its asks the reader for more of themselves. It doesn’t tell them how to think, only to think.
I can be a little difficult to work with because I don’t give easy answers (instead I add a tougher question or two). I tend to build in more details for people to look at so they can come to a conclusion (not remove them in place of a pithy comment). And I ask serious questions about integrity of the information at hand (and have even suggested that no data would have been better than some).
We do have a focus now in the world on the headline, the topline, the elevator pitch, the ‘skinny’, etc. Sometimes people give excellent summaries that cut to the very heart of a problem and its optimal solution – and sometimes they don’t.
Can you tell which is which?
Is it who it comes from? Is it how they say it? Is it that other people are saying it with them?
But maybe I am being too harsh and overly concerned with unnecessary details…
Headlines Rule – Its all people read anyway 🙂
PS. “This is the problem of attention-span. To understand something—an essay, an argument, a proof of innocence—requires a certain amount of attention. But on many issues, the average, or even rational, amount of attention given to understand many of these correlations, and their defamatory implications, is almost always less than the amount of time required. The result is a systemic misunderstanding–at least if the story is reported in a context, or in a manner, that does not neutralize such misunderstanding. The listing and correlating of data hardly qualifies as such a context. Understanding how and why some stories will be understood, or not understood, provides the key to grasping what is wrong with the tyranny of transparency.” – Larry Lessig via O’Reilly Radar
A TED talk by a “data journalist” David McCandless (same video at Youtube) highlighted that the display of information is more and more critical in influencing the world we live in – love his graphic of Facebook status updates about break ups. And what better way to display information than in an infographic, and gee these are appearing everywhere on almost every topic – even South Park. While some argue that this proliferation is perhaps not always done out of the desire for increased objective understanding of data, there is certainly a need for anyone displaying data (which includes me when I am working) to find a compelling way to display that data so that is tells a story.
To make all of this work though we first need to have the data, the understanding and the desire…
The Data – I read a few Gov 2.0 type blogs which talk about government departments and agencies making their information available to anyone and then people being able to use it (however they want). Some agencies are taking this a step further and allowing anyone to create an application which can use the open data sets which anyone can then use to make use of the data. What is basically happening here is the analysis tool development for the data is being crowd sourced.
The Understanding – This is what I now think has started to become the next version of the use of the wisdom of the crowd by taking it from more simplistic tasks – such as come up with a new slogan or product name (iSnack 2.0) or send in your photo (NothingLikeAustralia.com) – to much more complex elements that often require teams to work together – such as BrownCoats: Redemption, or the amazingly geeky Star Wars Uncut project – or do work of very high complexity with high production values – such as this short film which got its maker a US$30mil Hollywood contact.
The Desire – Something from a recent article on a conversation between Dan Pink and Clay Shirky reminded me of how this sounds when someone says it:
Pink: Think about open source software in general—whether it’s Linux or Apache. Suppose I’d gone to an economist or management consultant 25 years ago and said, “I’ve got a cool new business model for making software. Here’s how it works: A bunch of intrinsically motivated people around the world get together to do technically sophisticated stuff for no pay. And then after working really hard, they give away their product for free. Trust me: It’s going to be huge.”
There are so many data sets that are available. Would it hurt for any of us to think about how we might make the best use of the crowd (or the best people in the crowd) once in a while to help us display the data for our industry?
PS. “Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.” – Mark Twain
I pride myself on not just answering a question when I am asked. I prefer the askee to walk away with a better understanding of the problem they are facing and how to overcome it (though sometimes they don’t – sorry). This often means questioning the frame (or box) they have put the question in.
Google is asking a fairly big question at the moment: “What’s the biggest barrier to free expression on the Internet, and what would you do to overcome it?”. Certainly a great topic, worthy of time and effort to explore.
If we took the worst view of the those-in-power-responses-to-whistleblowing-type-activities we could easily suggest some pretty bad things (and many do).
Working with key performance indicators all the time though, I know that the story is almost always infinitely more complex. The only thing I have ever found to explain this is a Larry Lessig quote that is far too long (and even that says something)
This is the problem of attention-span. To understand something—an essay, an argument, a proof of innocence—requires a certain amount of attention. But on many issues, the average, or even rational, amount of attention given to understand many of these correlations, and their defamatory implications, is almost always less than the amount of time required. The result is a systemic misunderstanding–at least if the story is reported in a context, or in a manner, that does not neutralize such misunderstanding. The listing and correlating of data hardly qualifies as such a context. Understanding how and why some stories will be understood, or not understood, provides the key to grasping what is wrong with the tyranny of transparency.
Bring on the Matrix style training download of full, complete, detailed understandings.
PS. “Tell me I’ll forget, show me, I may remember, but involve me and I’ll understand.” – Chinese Proverb