Posted by: structureofnews | October 11, 2010

Visualizing the Future

A nice video showing some of the cool things that are being done to visualize data – and which, as an aside, also illustrates some challenges we have to overcome in this brave new world.

First, the good stuff:  It’s a great overview of what’s happening in the field, ranging from the work being done at ManyEyes to Google Data to the New York Times – probably along with the Guardian the most cutting-edge of all mainstream media organizations in this area – and more.   It’s full of people clearly in their element and exploring the boundaries of what we can do with information.

But it also shows how new and unmapped this landscape is.  There’s still a lot of visualizing for the sake of visualizing; a real grammar hasn’t yet emerged.   That makes it a heady time for people in the field – it’s like being present at the creation of a new narrative form.  But less so for consumers of the product (us) who sometimes feel like we’re guinea pigs being experimented on.

The old narrative form – video – does show its strengths and weaknesses, as well.   Since the subject matter is visual, and somewhat complicated, video helps explain it well.  And this one is nicely broken up into chapters and annotated with sidebars.  But at the same time, it also highlights video’s disadvantages – the entire show is nearly a hour long, and it’s hard to sustain attention for all of that, even if you’re fascinated by the topic.

Which really raises an important point: We need to understand all media and platforms well – what works well for one, and what doesn’t, and how to make experiences useful, immersive and interesting for users/readers.  Without that, we’re just playing with toys in the sandbox.

All in all, an interesting video worth watching.  Even if you don’t make it through the entire hour of it.


  1. Is more visualization better or not? I like visualization as it simplifies things. But quite often I feel, especially on media matters, that visualization simplify the thinking process as well. It’s easier to generate the “empathy” when the material is visual, but does it also compromise our feedback procedure? To me it’s like IT makes a conclusion for you, and it makes you think that it’s your OWN conclusion. With visualization it’s much efficient to send more messages within the same amount of time, but I feel I’m forced to think at the pace of the story teller, rather than taking my time precessing the information. Would it be the case that the more we receive information this way, the lazier we become (printing matters to TV) and the number we become? Is visualization actually making us wiser?

    • It’s an interesting question. Visualization doesn’t have to simplify things, but it can. I agree that some visualizations are too simple – or oversimplify – and that we haven’t yet really developed the grammar to understand when information isn’t being presented clearly (the way we’re (somewhat) more alert to gross simplifications in text). At the same time, at at the other end of the spectrum, we can be overwhelmed by visual information, and that many of the visualizations out there now are overly complex – simply because they can be.

      It sounds trite, but it’s true – we need to get better at using the right medium for the right message. Some stories are best told as narratives; others are tables and charts; others still as a photo; and so on.

      But when information is extremely complex – and we are getting more and more reams of information flowing to us – visualization can help us identify patterns or show processes that are happening. It’s another tool in the toolbox. We just have to learn how to use it well.

    • Yuxin, I feel like your argument is more based on the kind of visualization as TV/video vs. text (empathy, pace of story-teller, etc.), instead of those data visualization like what Hans Rosling did.

      Based on this assumption, I partly agree with your concern, that visualized information make the audience think less while processing more – but just like we both agree (if I remember correctly) on the importance of documentaries, images does sometimes more powerful and reveals a lot of details, which lead the audience think more.

      Also need to distinguish news and information: visualized or plain-text news doesn’t make much difference to me – they come and go in minutes or seconds anyway, even empathy (if aroused) stays shortly. But for complex information, visualization serves better to dig out its buried value and helps the audience to think and to draw their own conclusion.

      Talk more tomorrow when we meet.

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