The Beauty of Data Visualization: David McCandless (Transcript)

Because for me, it feels like a fertile, creative medium. Over the years, online, we’ve laid down a huge amount of information and data, and we irrigate it with networks and connectivity, and it’s been worked and tilled by unpaid workers and governments. And, all right, I’m kind of milking the metaphor a little bit.

But it’s a really fertile medium, and it feels like visualizations, infographics, data visualizations, they feel like flowers blooming from this medium. But if you look at it directly, it’s just a lot of numbers and disconnected facts.

But if you start working with it and playing with it in a certain way, interesting things can appear and different patterns can be revealed. Let me show you this.

Can you guess what this data set is? What rises twice a year, once in Easter and then two weeks before Christmas, has a mini peak every Monday, and then flattens out over the summer? I’ll take answers.

(Audience: Chocolate.)

Chocolate. You might want to get some chocolate in. Any other guesses?

(Audience: Shopping.)

Shopping. Yeah, retail therapy might help.

(Audience: Sick leave.)

Sick leave. Yeah, you’ll definitely want to take some time off. Shall we see?

So, the information guru Lee Byron and myself, we scraped 10,000 status Facebook updates for the phrase “break-up” and “broken-up” and this is the pattern we found — people clearing out for Spring Break, coming out of very bad weekends on a Monday, being single over the summer, and then the lowest day of the year, of course: Christmas Day. Who would do that?

So there’s a titanic amount of data out there now, unprecedented. But if you ask the right kind of question, or you work it in the right kind of way, interesting things can emerge.

So information is beautiful. Data is beautiful. I wonder if I could make my life beautiful. And here’s my visual CV. I’m not quite sure I’ve succeeded. Pretty blocky, the colors aren’t that great. But I wanted to convey something to you.

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I started as a programmer, and then I worked as a writer for many years, about 20 years, in print, online and then in advertising, and only recently have I started designing. And I’ve never been to design school. I’ve never studied art or anything. I just kind of learned through doing.

And when I started designing, I discovered an odd thing about myself. I already knew how to design, but it wasn’t like I was amazingly brilliant at it, but more like I was sensitive to the ideas of grids and space and alignment and typography. It’s almost like being exposed to all this media over the years had instilled a kind of dormant design literacy in me.

And I don’t feel like I’m unique. I feel that everyday, all of us now are being blasted by information design. It’s being poured into our eyes through the Web, and we’re all visualizers now; we’re all demanding a visual aspect to our information.

There’s something almost quite magical about visual information. It’s effortless, it literally pours in. And if you’re navigating a dense information jungle, coming across a beautiful graphic or a lovely data visualization, it’s a relief, it’s like coming across a clearing in the jungle.

I was curious about this, so it led me to the work of a Danish physicist called Tor Norretranders, and he converted the bandwidth of the senses into computer terms. So here we go. This is your senses, pouring into your senses every second.

Your sense of sight is the fastest. It has the same bandwidth as a computer network. Then you have touch, which is about the speed of a USB key. And then you have hearing and smell, which has the throughput of a hard disk. And then you have poor old taste, which is like barely the throughput of a pocket calculator.

And that little square in the corner, a naught 0.7%, that’s the amount we’re actually aware of. So a lot of your vision — the bulk of it is visual, and it’s pouring in. It’s unconscious. The eye is exquisitely sensitive to patterns in variations in color, shape and pattern. It loves them, and it calls them beautiful. It’s the language of the eye.

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If you combine the language of the eye with the language of the mind, which is about words and numbers and concepts, you start speaking two languages simultaneously, each enhancing the other.

So, you have the eye, and then you drop in the concepts. And that whole thing — it’s two languages both working at the same time. So we can use this new kind of language, if you like, to alter our perspective or change our views.

Let me ask you a simple question with a really simple answer: Who has the biggest military budget? It’s got to be America, right? Massive. 609 billion in 2008 — 607, rather. So massive, in fact, that it can contain all the other military budgets in the world inside itself. Gobble, gobble, gobble, gobble, gobble.

Now, you can see Africa’s total debt there and the U.K. budget deficit for reference. So that might well chime with your view that America is a sort of warmongering military machine, out to overpower the world with its huge industrial-military complex.

But is it true that America has the biggest military budget? Because America is an incredibly rich country. In fact, it’s so massively rich that it can contain the four other top industrialized nations’ economies inside itself, it’s so vastly rich. So its military budget is bound to be enormous.

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