Home » The Beauty of Data Visualization: David McCandless (Transcript)

The Beauty of Data Visualization: David McCandless (Transcript)

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.

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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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.

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