As an attendee at the inaugural VISUALIZED conference last week in New York City, I was ready to experience, as the website described, “an inspiring two-day gathering with the brightest minds and social innovators from around the world who are changing how we understand and interact with data; and gain insight into designing data-driven narratives that connect with audiences and visualize the human experience.”
The event certainly delivered on that promise. With a rapid-fire lineup of 32 speakers over two days, things skewed interestingly–but perhaps not surprisingly–towards the experimental. Or perhaps those are the presentations that made the biggest impact on me among several days of maps, network diagrams, dynamic charts and bubble diagrams.
On second thought, I should use the word “experiential” instead of “experimental.” It’s a term that came up many times as the presenters emphasized a need to engage with the audience in order to inform them. Cartogram wall sculptures as prompts for storytelling, generative sound sculptures, personalized place-based network jewelry, and sound from scribbles certainly engaged me. But I’m not sure how much they informed me. I can’t deny that these more abstract examples of data visualization do tell stories–as does art, poetry, dance, and music. Inspirational? Most definitely. But several steps away from data journalism, and outside of my world as the art director of information graphics at Scientific American. And yet these are the examples I’m compelled to share.
Other themes and examples were more directly connected to the sort of work I do every day. Presenter after presenter spoke of the need for context. Simon Rogers, data journalist and editor at the Guardian, summarized that need succinctly: “Numbers without context are just numbers.” And as Amber Case, cyborg anthropologist and the founder of Geoloqi, and others emphasized, it’s our job to make the invisible visible.
I can’t help but wonder if in the relatively recent race to distance ourselves from fussy or decorative and nonfunctional chartjunk, we have overcompensated, and ended up in a sterile place of displaying cold numbers, stripped completely of their stories. Perhaps on hitting that extreme, the emphasis is now on the injection of humanity into the numbers in a more sophisticated and meaningful way. One thing is for sure, there are a lot of inspiring data visualizers in the world doing just that, in very memorable ways