The Beauty of Data
Every 48 hours, the world produces vast amounts of data—so vast, in fact, their sum matches the quantity of all information created from the beginning of civilization until 2003, as Google’s Eric Schmidt pronounced last year.
But what good are these terabytes upon terabytes of raw, unfiltered, non-contextualized information without someone telling us what it all means? Marketers are trying to do just that, by using an up-and-coming concept called data visualization.
Formerly the province of scientists and statisticians, “data viz,” as the discipline is known, is gaining popularity as a way for global brands such as General Electric Co., Nike, Inc. and Samsung to weave compelling, credible and informational narratives, throwing a lifeline to consumers caught in today’s deluge of data.
“Because technology has become so pervasive in our lives, everything is being tracked, everything is being stored, and also the tools have become available to really manipulate that data,” says Andy Clark, executive creative director of data visualization for the digital advertising agency R/GA in New York.
To be sure, data visualizations—rich, often interactive depictions of thousands of data points—are becoming dominant features in our digital, and even physical landscapes. We see them in smartphone apps such as Nike+GPS, which plots a runner’s course and displays in gradations of reds and greens where a runner slowed (reds), and where he or she sped up (greens). We see them in publications, such as The New York Times, Good and Wired, which attract page views and traffic to their sites and print products. And we see them in our surroundings.
At the South by Southwest Conference earlier this year, Samsung featured a sprawling, 12-screen social media terminal showing conference-goers where other attendees were checking in on Foursquare, what panel topics were trending on Twitter and displaying photos shared on social networks. “You’re walking around South by Southwest. You’re really overwhelmed by what’s going on, and you want to know what’s happening, what’s trending, where do I need to be?” says Leslie Bradshaw, chief operating officer and co-founder of JESS3, the Washington, D.C., agency that worked with Samsung to create the display.
Bradshaw says it’s the kind of problem data viz is uniquely positioned to solve. “Data visualization is a really powerful
tool that solves the problem of too much information and how to make sense of it,” she says.
Intel’s “The Museum of Me” website is another example of how social media data can be visualized. The site connects to your Facebook account and extracts its data, assembling them into a virtual museum tour of your online life. Set to sentimental music, the site leads you through several exhibits—your friends, your photos, a map of your location, your most frequently used words in posts, your videos. For the grand finale, it weaves your friends’ profile photos into a mosaic of your own. So far, the campaign has notched more than 800,000 likes on Facebook.
Data viz experts also point to Sprint as a leader in the relatively nascent discipline. Playing on the idea of what “now” looks like, the brand’s stunning Interactive Now campaign widget displays a staggering integration of up-to-the-second global data, from the number of calls made on Sprint phones at that very moment to the number of bicycles being produced to the current temperature in Seoul. Approximately 100,000 blogs have featured the campaign. The average user spent five minutes on the campaign microsite.
These examples of data visualization capture a growing trend among brands: Showing—not telling—your message to customers through what are often dazzling depictions of data. “Across the board, in every industry, it’s becoming not only a means of communication,” says R/GA’s Clark, “but also a means of creating new engagements with brands, in terms of new products and services we can build that are data driven.”
To say that we are a culture awash in data is a gross understatement. Just consider the nearly incalculable volume of user-generated content—YouTube videos, tweets, Facebook posts—and you have a world teeming with data ripe for depiction, says JESS3’s Bradshaw. “The rise of visual storytelling has complete correlation to the prevalence and proliferation of data,” she says. “The more data there are, the more there is a need for this.”
In 2008, according to the “How Much Information?” study by the Global Information Industry Center at the University of California, San Diego, Americans consumed 3.6 zettabytes (1,000 billion gigabytes) of information—34 gigabytes per person, per day.
Data visualization’s main value proposition is it can condense hundreds of pages of information and spreadsheet upon spreadsheet of data into an engaging, attractive visualization. “When you visualize things, it’s really a means to see trends, or understand highlights in the data or findings that you wouldn’t see looking at a spreadsheet or a table, or even a story about the data,” says Kennedy Elliot, a data visualist hired out of graduate school by Nielsen, the consumer research firm, but who now works as an interactive producer for The Associated Press.
Colliding with that flare-up of figures are two other trends. First, consumers are becoming more data literate. Our fractured attention spans make us more inclined to toggle between Google, social networks and news sites online—all while watching a TV show, for instance. “An end consumer’s ability to quickly read and then quickly interpret a data visualization as opposed to text or images is only going to increase, and rapidly so, and so I think you’re going to see it as a major visual component in a lot of advertising going forward,” Clark says.
Second, social media has allowed data visualizations to be shared across social networks.
That’s among the reasons GE waded into data viz, says Camille Kubie, the corporation’s manager of brand and design. “One of the key things that attracted us to this space is [it’s] so well-suited to social media,” says Kubie, who has spearheaded the company’s bid to position itself as a thought leader in the health and energy industries through data viz. “Our primary interest in data visualization is that it helps us simplify complexity, tell stories and advance the conversation around the issues that are important to GE. The best visualizations are inherently shareable and well-suited for social media.”
GE curates a data viz blog that has garnered acclaim throughout the discipline’s extended community, tackling data-laden topics, such as engine innovation, and turning them into rich, interactive visualizations. (The rotors of a turbine engine illuminate as you scroll your cursor over each one, illustrating individual innovations in engine technology, for example.)
And this spring, GE debuted a free Stats of the Union iPad app, which allows consumers to “explore the nation’s vital signs,” drawing on data from the Department of Health and Human Services. Kubie says the app was downloaded 50,000 times in its first two weeks from the iTunes store.
Another Tool in the Arsenal
Data visualization stands to be a great equalizer for the consumer, especially when applied to products and brands. Because, after all, how do you argue with a chart? “People have this innate trust if they see a bar chart or a pie chart,” says Robin Richards, information design director responsible for JESS3’s data visualizations. “They kind of think, ‘Well, they made a chart, so it must be accurate.’”
That is, in part, why it’s catching on. “Marketers are looking at it as a potential tool in the arsenal,” says Teri Schindler, in charge of business development at Fathom Information Design, the company behind GE’s iPad app. It puts information in context for consumers. As Schindler says, “sometimes you want to see the forest and the trees.”
As data visualization spreads, practitioners and proponents say it’s key to guard against false, misleading or inaccurate data.
“If there’s one ‘watch out,’ it is that we lose credibility when we present data in a way that serves our commercial interests at the expense of objectivity,”
says GE’s Kubie. “We’re really trying to present information [accurately]—both data that’s objective, and presented in a way that’s objective.”
For Wesley Grubbs, a data viz whiz and the founder of the Madison, Wis.-based studio Pitch Interactive, striving for accuracy and data integrity is paramount. His journey from a well-known ad agency in Madison to starting his own data company underscores that. “I didn’t want to persuade anymore,” Grubbs says. “I wanted to inform people to make decisions.”
He says everyone can benefit from data viz. “It can really be used in any industry,” says Grubbs over the phone, standing on the Adriatic Coast looking out over the Mediterranean Sea.
“I can see the fishermen right now. They can benefit from data viz. What is the fish level in the water today? What is the water’s temperature? How deep are most of the fish?” asks Grubbs, imagining an instrument onboard their ship that could collectively and elegantly display this information using data viz.
How deep, indeed. It’s everyday situations like those that foreshadow data
visualization’s potential to infiltrate nearly every corner of our lives. And Grubbs’ example seems a particularly apt one: Just as he suggests it could help the fisherman peer deeper into the ocean, the discipline is giving consumers a new depth perception. In a sea of often-murky statistics, data visualizations—done right—are illuminating their way.