The Beauty of Data Visualization: David McCandless (Transcript)

David McCandless turns complex data sets (like worldwide military spending, media buzz, Facebook status updates) into beautiful, simple diagrams that tease out unseen patterns and connections.

David McCandless – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT

It feels like we’re all suffering from information overload or data glut. And the good news is there might be an easy solution to that, and that’s using our eyes more.

So, visualizing information, so that we can see the patterns and connections that matter and then designing that information so it makes more sense, or it tells a story, or allows us to focus only on the information that’s important.

Failing that, visualized information can just look really cool. So, let’s see.

This is the $Billion Dollar o-Gram, and this image arose out of frustration I had with the reporting of billion-dollar amounts in the press. That is, they’re meaningless without context: 500 billion for this pipeline, 20 billion for this war. It doesn’t make any sense, so the only way to understand it is visually and relatively.

So I scraped a load of reported figures from various news outlets and then scaled the boxes according to those amounts. And the colors here represent the motivation behind the money. So purple is “fighting,” and red is “giving money away,” and green is “profiteering.”

And what you can see straight away is you start to have a different relationship to the numbers. You can literally see them. But more importantly, you start to see patterns and connections between numbers that would otherwise be scattered across multiple news reports.

Let me point out some that I really like.

This is OPEC’s revenue, this green box here — 780 billion a year. And this little pixel in the corner — three billion — that’s their climate change fund.

Americans, incredibly generous people — over 300 billion a year, donated to charity every year, compared with the amount of foreign aid given by the top 17 industrialized nations at 120 billion.

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Then of course, the Iraq War, predicted to cost just 60 billion back in 2003. And it mushroomed slightly. Afghanistan and Iraq mushroomed now to 3,000 billion.

So now it’s great because now we have this texture, and we can add numbers to it as well. So we could say, well, a new figure comes out … let’s see African debt.

How much of this diagram do you think might be taken up by the debt that Africa owes to the West? Let’s take a look. So there it is:

227 billion is what Africa owes. And the recent financial crisis, how much of this diagram might that figure take up? What has that cost the world? Let’s take a look at that.

Dooosh — Which I think is the appropriate sound effect for that much money: 11,900 billion.

So, by visualizing this information, we turned it into a landscape that you can explore with your eyes, a kind of map really, a sort of information map. And when you’re lost in information, an information map is kind of useful.

So I want to show you another landscape now. We need to imagine what a landscape of the world’s fears might look like. Let’s take a look.

This is Mountains Out of Molehills, a timeline of global media panic. So, I’ll label this for you in a second. But the height here, I want to point out, is the intensity of certain fears as reported in the media. Let me point them out.

So this, swine flu — pink. Bird flu. SARS — brownish here. Remember that one? The millennium bug, terrible disaster. These little green peaks are asteroid collisions.

And in summer, here, killer wasps. So these are what our fears look like over time in our media.

But what I love — and I’m a journalist — and what I love is finding hidden patterns; I love being a data detective. And there’s a very interesting and odd pattern hidden in this data that you can only see when you visualize it. Let me highlight it for you.

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See this line, this is a landscape for violent video games. As you can see, there’s a kind of odd, regular pattern in the data, twin peaks every year.

If we look closer, we see those peaks occur at the same month every year. Why?

Well, November, Christmas video games come out, and there may well be an upsurge in the concern about their content. But April isn’t a particularly massive month for video games.

Why April?

Well, in April 1999 was the Columbine shooting, and since then, that fear has been remembered by the media and echoes through the group mind gradually through the year. You have retrospectives, anniversaries, court cases, even copy-cat shootings, all pushing that fear into the agenda.

And there’s another pattern here as well. Can you spot it? See that gap there? There’s a gap, and it affects all the other stories.

Why is there a gap there?

You see where it starts? September 2001, when we had something very real to be scared about. So, I’ve been working as a data journalist for about a year, and I keep hearing a phrase all the time, which is this: “Data is the new oil.”

Data is the kind of ubiquitous resource that we can shape to provide new innovations and new insights, and it’s all around us, and it can be mined very easily. It’s not a particularly great metaphor in these times, especially if you live around the Gulf of Mexico, but I would, perhaps, adapt this metaphor slightly, and I would say that data is the new soil.

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