The Beauty of Data Visualization: David McCandless (Transcript)

So, to be fair and to alter our perspective, we have to bring in another data set, and that data set is GDP, or the country’s earnings. Who has the biggest budget as a proportion of GDP? Let’s have a look.

That changes the picture considerably. Other countries pop into view that you, perhaps, weren’t considering, and America drops into eighth.

Now you can also do this with soldiers. Who has the most soldiers? It’s got to be China. Of course, 2.1 million.

Again, chiming with your view that China has a militarized regime ready to, you know, mobilize its enormous forces. But of course, China has an enormous population. So if we do the same, we see a radically different picture. China drops to 124th. It actually has a tiny army when you take other data into consideration.

So, absolute figures, like the military budget, in a connected world, don’t give you the whole picture. They’re not as true as they could be. We need relative figures that are connected to other data so that we can see a fuller picture, and then that can lead to us changing our perspective.

As Hans Rosling, the master, my master, said, “Let the dataset change your mindset.”

And if it can do that, maybe it can also change your behavior. Take a look at this one.

I’m a bit of a health nut. I love taking supplements and being fit, but I can never understand what’s going on in terms of evidence. There’s always conflicting evidence.

Should I take vitamin C? Should I be taking wheatgrass? This is a visualization of all the evidence for nutritional supplements. This kind of diagram is called a balloon race. So the higher up the image, the more evidence there is for each supplement.

And the bubbles correspond to popularity as regards to Google hits. So you can immediately apprehend the relationship between efficacy and popularity, but you can also, if you grade the evidence, do a “worth it” line.

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So supplements above this line are worth investigating, but only for the conditions listed below, and then the supplements below the line are perhaps not worth investigating.

Now this image constitutes a huge amount of work. We scraped like 1,000 studies from PubMed, the biomedical database, and we compiled them and graded them all. And it was incredibly frustrating for me because I had a book of 250 visualizations to do for my book, and I spent a month doing this, and I only filled two pages.

But what it points to is that visualizing information like this is a form of knowledge compression. It’s a way of squeezing an enormous amount of information and understanding into a small space.

And once you’ve curated that data, and once you’ve cleaned that data, and once it’s there, you can do cool stuff like this. So I converted this into an interactive app, so I can now generate this application online — this is the visualization online — and I can say, “Yeah, brilliant.” So it spawns itself.

And then I can say, “Well, just show me the stuff that affects heart health.” So let’s filter that out.

So heart is filtered out, so I can see if I’m curious about that. I think, “No, no. I don’t want to take any synthetics, I just want to see plants and — just show me herbs and plants. I’ve got all the natural ingredients.”

Now this app is spawning itself from the data. The data is all stored in a Google Doc, and it’s literally generating itself from that data. So the data is now alive; this is a living image, and I can update it in a second.

New evidence comes out. I just change a row on a spreadsheet. Doosh! Again, the image recreates itself. So it’s cool. It’s kind of living.

But it can go beyond data, and it can go beyond numbers. I like to apply information visualization to ideas and concepts. This is a visualization of the political spectrum, an attempt for me to try and understand how it works and how the ideas percolate down from government into society and culture, into families, into individuals, into their beliefs and back around again in a cycle.

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What I love about this image is it’s made up of concepts, it explores our worldviews and it helps us — it helps me anyway — to see what others think, to see where they’re coming from. And it feels just incredibly cool to do that.

What was most exciting for me designing this was that, when I was designing this image, I desperately wanted this side, the left side, to be better than the right side — being a journalist, a Left-leaning person — but I couldn’t, because I would have created a lopsided, biased diagram.

So, in order to really create a full image, I had to honor the perspectives on the right-hand side and at the same time, uncomfortably recognize how many of those qualities were actually in me, which was very, very annoying and uncomfortable.

But not too uncomfortable, because there’s something unthreatening about seeing a political perspective, versus being told or forced to listen to one. You’re capable of holding conflicting viewpoints joyously when you can see them. It’s even fun to engage with them because it’s visual. So that’s what’s exciting to me, seeing how data can change my perspective and change my mind midstream — beautiful, lovely data.

So, just to wrap up, I wanted to say that it feels to me that design is about solving problems and providing elegant solutions, and information design is about solving information problems. It feels like we have a lot of information problems in our society at the moment, from the overload and the saturation to the breakdown of trust and reliability and runaway skepticism and lack of transparency, or even just interestingness.

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