To my fellow panelists; like myself, you are here because you believe in the power of data for good. Tell us about your journey with Viz for Social Good.
I first began to work with data for good in the Art Department at National Geographic Magazine. We were responsible for visualizing complex ideas that couldn't be photographed, including data-rich archaeology, paleontology, and natural history stories that included charts, maps, and art. It was easy to see how my contributions resonated.
For instance, one day, my sister saw people on the NY Subway reading an article I helped to make and texted me in excitement. However, circulation at National Geographic was in steep decline near the end of my time there, falling steeply to about 3.5 million readers in the US from its peak of 12 million subscribers in the late 1980s. People were getting their information from many other sources.
After I left the magazine, I noticed the potential of social media to disrupt traditional gatekeepers of information. Kind of like the French Revolution, which began with "liberty, equality, and fraternity" and ended with the Great Terror, the social media revolution has swerved into troubled territory. We went from connecting with old high school friends to being surveilled, tracked, and manipulated in Orwellian ways. Personal data is now a commodity like oil.
In this way, we often hear about the negative impacts of social media. I've worked on internal dashboards for companies and governments where I questioned the motivation for such data analytics.
By its design, Twitter and the retweet encourages other problematic behaviors, this time from the users of the platform.
Hans Rosling, a great visual communicator of data, believed that we're prone to over-dramatizing stories due to our ancient social roots. When we invented fire, our communications changed from daytime pragmatism. Around the fire, we began to tell more dramatic stories to create social bonds and simulate scenarios and experiences. We crave stories today: they are a vital tool for reasoning and mapping our understanding of how the world works.
Our minds are wired for dramatic stories, and we look for them everywhere. On social media, a conspiracy theory spreads like wildfire compared to a subtle, nuanced analysis of data. People then fall back to content that validates their beliefs while rejecting content that questions their beliefs. All too often, we become more tribal rather than cooperative and connected—a reversal of the value proposition that social media once promised.
And yet like the French Revolution soon inspired our form of democracy, social media has so much untapped positive potential—especially in supporting causes that benefit the social good.
Here, experts and everyday people collaborate and even co-create projects from the ground up.
I learned about the philosophy behind this practice, called participatory design, by reading a book called Convivial Tools, published in the 1970s by the philosopher Ivan Illich. This book offered a glimmer of possibility for social media, despite all of the negative news about it, that led me to VFSG.
A convivial platform provides easy ways to get on board, participate, and share creative work. Here, the platform of social media promotes creativity rather than conformity, and collaboration and co-creation rather than hegemony and surveillance.
At SUNY New Paltz, I teach a course on data visualization. My students are often idealistic. Our public comprehensive college, after all, is just down the road from Woodstock! I think many millennials are aware of the wicked sustainability challenges we face and want to learn how to work together with diverse stakeholders to make a more immediate positive mark on the world.
I discovered VFSG while searching for a platform for my data viz students that promotes the kind of connective and convivial values that social media originally claimed to hold. On Twitter, I found a Tableau ambassador who directed me to VFSG.
Our data viz course culminates in students choosing project briefs prepared by non-profits all over the world. If they opt to do so, my students can tweet their informative designs and potentially get feedback from people all over the world. With VFSG, those learning data viz can at the same time discover how to engage with the world on behalf of good causes.
Josh – tell us about the importance of graphic design in the field of data visualization.
We often overlook the fact that a chart is a graphic design creation. The Scottish polymath William Playfair popularized charts in the late 18th Century. Using the latitude and longitude of geographic maps as a model, Playfair figured he could map quantitative and qualitative information to visual attributes, such as space, form, and color. Playfair hand-drew the original pie charts, bar charts, and line charts to explore and publish economic and social issues.
Frameworks of charts that correspond to data tables eventually turned into a set of conventions and then a field of practice, which we call data visualization. Here, the point is not visualization and graphic design but insight, and practitioners dig for actionable insights.
Today, graphic design supports the purpose of data viz by making these charts, these tools for reasoning, less labor-intensive and easier to read; more crystallized and less cluttered.
Applications like Tableau bake-in best visualization practices. The computer generates a chart in the blink of an eye.
Yet because it’s so easy to make a chart these days compared to the hand-drawn ones, of say, William Playfair, there's a great potential to misuse software. We can create misleading charts through our less thoughtful choices.
And we lose the intelligence and sensibility of our hands. We can easily map too much complexity for the human eye, and create what researcher Noah Illinksy calls visual spaghetti. If you Google images of "data visualization," you'll see a crazy-quilt of these spaghetti graphics.
Graphic Design turns that spaghetti into lasagna: a big chunk of information that’s rich and layered.
Graphic design also provides accessibility. In ideal scenarios, designers try to understand the audience who will read the charts. Expert audiences, for example, appreciate elaborate charts more than non-experts, who might appreciate simpler ones. Ideally, graphic designers try to understand what it's like not to understand, and design from that point of view to make sure the reading experience is inclusive.
As Bill Gates once said, when we feel dismayed about apathy in the world, consider this: It’s not that people don’t care, it’s that the idea seems too complicated or too distant. Complicated, opaque ideas are actually barriers to thinking, caring, and leading.
Barriers have been a concern in our built environment since the 1970s. Universal design is about making our built environment more accessible. That’s why we have onramps to buildings, for those who can’t climb the stairs.
Just the other day, the NY Times ran a story about a new public library, Queens Public Library, in Long Island City. They call it a 41.5 million dollar architectural masterpiece—but there’s a problem.
The placement of the adult fiction section on three terrace-like levels between the library’s first and second floors was the first issue patrons noticed. A few complained that they couldn’t access the fiction books, because those levels were only accessible by stairs, Gothamist reported.
Queens Library officials responded that librarians could simply retrieve those books for disabled patrons, a solution in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and noted that the first of the four terraces did have elevator access.
But on social media and among advocates for the disabled, that rationale got panned.
“To me, that is the response of somebody who never had the experience of going somewhere and not being able to fully participate,” said Christine Yearwood, founder of the disability rights group, Up-Stand. “Part of what universal design is about is allowing everyone to independently enjoy spaces. Having to ask someone else to help you is, at worst, demeaning, and at best, a limiting experience.”
In a similar way, graphic design creates an onramp for those who can’t climb the stairs. Information that might otherwise remain inaccessible, either by being too complicated or unreadable, becomes approachable. We can grasp ideas here.
Graphic design promotes data literacy because it can leverage pre-attentive processing, our ancient survival ability to detect breaks in patterns in our environment. Graphic design makes contrasts and breaks in patterns perceptible through the use of contrast in color, form, space, and motion.
It's the best way to get people's attention.
Through graphic design choices in a chart, we distill what matters most in graphic form. Well-designed charts surface our own gaps in understanding a topic, leading to more questions.
Graphic design can also help us reframe and reshape visualizations to see how our reading of the data changes.
When done ethically, good design can draw us into the story rather than push facts on us, in the way a great conversation does. Charts become a medium for understanding ideas, making complex ideas more vivid and shareable.
This, in turn, helps people become more literate through practice. Charts, like writing, are an invention. This invention requires active practice in learning how to read, interpret, and make charts. Data Viz helps us to enhance our individual inquiry, thinking, and discovery by providing a type of visual language: conceptual, structural, and formal clarity in the form of charts.
When shared, these charts create a common ground of shared meaning for people. That common ground, that shared meaning, becomes essential ingredients for working together.
In short, data are simply observations of our world that have the potential for meaning. With truthful intent, an awareness of the audience, and mindful of principles of visual communication, graphic design can help imbue that data with meaning.
Can you share an example of impactful work you have seen?
Data Viz can help raise awareness of ideas that we might know about, but don't really consider or notice in our everyday world. One of my favorite projects is called Native Land, which you can find online at:
I became aware of this map after attending a data visualization conference in Canada. At Canadian universities, it's common to invoke the name of the indigenous peoples who lived and live on or near the university grounds. I conducted a google search about data visualization and indigenous communities and found Native Land.
In this project, we see a map of North America. And yet the familiar state and province shapes no longer exist. Instead, we see an elaborate overview of Canadian and American Indian territories. The straight lines of political boundaries disappear in favor of more organic shapes. The reader can pan and zoom on the map, and discover details-on-demand from tooltips, to learn more about an American Indian territory. You can search for your own address and zoom in on the American Indian community there.
You also have the ability to explore indigenous territories around the world and to turn on filters for languages and treaties.
While exploring the map, you're also provided links to learn more about these communities.
Here's one definition of design that I've always liked: utility enhanced with significance. Utility appeals to the left brain, the logical and problem-solving side. Significance appeals to the associative, sense-making side of our minds. Although we like to think of ourselves as rational, in fact, we're often driven by emotion.
While the exploratory map isn't quite beautiful in its design, it is useful and meaningful. It helps us understand our world in a way we haven't seen before. It makes an emotional claim by making present an absence in our own lives. We can interpret the Native Lands map as a vibrant tapestry of peoples, whom we need to listen to, consider, and remediate.
My only critique is the map projection, which uses the Mercator projection that exaggerates the area of countries in Northern latitudes. Some designers believe that Mercator reflects our own exaggerated sense of importance in the United States, compared to countries closer to the Equator.
Despite this concern, this map is information-rich and provides a portal for more research and understanding.
We often measure impact in terms of profit or popularity. Here, I measure impact by how this map helps reframe a view of humanity.
The Native Lands map sparks curiosity and compassion by providing information. By its design, the map prioritizes values that benefit the social good. We can see our world with fresh eyes. We can question our assumptions about what's true and our given reality—such as the shape of our states. We can see what we're missing.
Through this visualization, the reader considers the diverse American Indian communities that call our common ground home.
I think this project is a convivial platform, and in a big picture way, it promotes values of raising awareness, meaning, and clarity, similar to VFSG.