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Producing Scientific American Infographics in the Era of "Big Data"

Nigel Holmes on Big DataCourtesy of Nigel Holmes ( An illustration on infographics, developed for "Infografics. A visual definition"

“Big Data”–large and often complicated data sets that thwart quick analysis–remained a key phrase at the World Infographics Summit last month. But the buzz that surrounded that phrase seemed measured and in control. Experts of data visualization have emerged, and they come bearing elegant examples of what works, clumsy examples of what doesn’t, lessons learned, blogs and even a podcast.

With two consecutive years as a summit participant, I’m a relative newbie on the scene. Hosted by the Spanish chapter of the Society for News Design and the School of Communication at the University of Navarra, the week of workshops, lectures, awards and conversations held annually in Pamplona, Spain, is collectively known as Malofiej (named after the Argentinian infographics artist Alejandro Malofiej). This was a banner year–the 20th anniversary–attracting more than 200 participants from around the world.

Last year I recalled a sense of urgency swirling around the conference. How to parse through all the data pouring down? What programming languages to use? Would the iPad change everything? How (or should) infographics try to make sense of the data points swirling about in social media? My lecture notes include definitions, categories and tool suggestions. What is an infographic? What is a data visualization? Define, divide and conquer. Anything to help me make sense of the increasing demand for graphics that digest and make sense of large amounts of data.

This year, many of the talks orbited around the idea of beauty. Craft. Minimalism. Clarity of thought, intent and delivery. The emphasis, to my mind, shifted subtly from efficiency of task, to the editorial process–with the ultimate goal of producing a thing of beauty.

The definitions and categories I had dutifully noted last year were condensed. Information is data. Data is information. Whether the end product is a beautifully painted reconstruction of a dinosaur or a clean numerical chart, the goal is the same: create a visual that helps explain a process, concept, event or state.

“Big data,” after all, isn’t new to our magazine’s readers. Infinity, anyone?

Must Our Universe be Infinite?From an article by Nicolas P. Rashevsky, Scientific American, September 1925

Scientific American has a long history of working with scientists to help make large data sets understandable–literal depictions of the fundamentals of math and numbers (graphic, below), to bigger picture and more figurative visual displays of large data sets (video, below). Working with scientists and artists to help visualize “Big Data” is a natural extension of what we’ve been doing all along.

Real and Complex NumbersGraphic by Brown Bird Design. From "The Strangest Numbers in String Theory" by John C. Baez and John Huerta, Scientific American Magazine, May 2011


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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