Meanland: Beautiful statistics

With a glut of 4,568 emails, many of which are links emailed from my twitter account for deeper reading, I try to focus on the task at hand. After six months you’d think I’d have lost the fascination. But what I’m learning is too great to ignore. After eight years as a stay-at-home mum, I’m hungering for conversations reminiscent of those had in London when I worked for a woman who played a leading role in shifting attitudes on disability. On Twitter are shares I have not before been privy to in such abundance. The buzz comes from journalists, writers, scientists, visual artists, digital natives and others sharing literature, publishing, innovations, climate change, equality and more. It’s huge. I am gorging.

Again it happens. I come up against unfamiliar jargon or a barrage of complex stats or history I’m yet to understand. I mumble something about sleep deprivation before muttering: ‘if only I could gather this stuff up – even better, have someone do it for me – in a way that helps me understand quickly and remember.’

A few visits later to websites of a couple of global curators, and it seems the thing to pull information together to make understanding a breeze, with superb bursts of colour or line drawings or typography or even emblems of some kind or another, is the Infographic.

Or as it was once called: the information graphic. Not that we’ve stopped using the old term. It’s just that our language now has words short enough to fit, along with a link and hashtag, into a tweet of 140 characters. In June 2011, the word Infographic was added to the Oxford Dictionary, along with ‘unfollow’, ‘overshare’, and ‘ZOMG’. As of the dictionary’s twelfth edition (August 2011), ‘retweet’ donned a tuxedo and finally went to the grammatical ball. Truth is, I prefer the Urban Dictionary as a guide on modern word usage, but I come from a mongrel Tuscan/Sicilian breed and am known to indulge in variants of language to shock the most amiable of grammarians. WTF? Glad to say, it’s in both dictionaries.

The way I see it, a good Infographic curates stats into what is beautiful and easily understood. Here are useful charts, data journalist and information designer David McCandless writes in the foreward of his charcoal A5 size hardback, ‘to help us navigate’. His book is a testament to a new beauty that abounds. Colours are reflective of ‘Interesting’ hues flagged on pages 34–35, with elderberry, shiitake, tarragon and kelp, as well as snorkel blue, roccoco red, moss and hollyhock.

The chart has come a long way from early cave drawings and ancient maps to the late eighteenth-century atlas, early twentieth-century tube map and now Infographics with added animation and interaction. David McCandless cites statistician and sculptor Edward Tufte as a major influence on the latest crop of beautiful information.

Shared globally in late 2010, the best animated Infographic I’ve seen to date is Hans Rosling’s 200 countries in 200 years. A medical doctor, academic and statistician, Rosling is, writes Kim Zettler for Wired, ‘the only academic who can make dry statistics dance like musical theatre stars while revealing startling facts about the world and debunking preconceptions’. When Rosling began to lecture on global health many years ago, he wanted an effective way to impart data to already bright students about his area of expertise. Interactive visual representations, he finds, show how ‘non-boring’ statistics can be.

If you are yet to see 120,000 stats plotted in a breathtaking interconnect of 200 countries’ health and wealth over the last two hundred years, prepare for an absorbing 4.42 minutes. Rosling provides us with the big picture, for example, of how regions of the world are faring on wealth, after which he gives us greater contextualised data aggregation. He breaks the regions down into individual countries and then introduces health and its correlation to wealth. The clip is part of a BBC4 documentary series called The Joy of Stats.

I’m wondering with Rosling why more holders of well-researched data, including universities, the United Nations and National Statistics Bureaus, are yet to harness this medium in communicating complex knowledge to students and the general public. This year, there have been two that I know of: the ABS’ Spotlight to generate a personal profile that compares you to the rest of the population and NPR’s Visualising How a Population Grows to 7 Billion.

Eirik Solheim’s vimeo One year in 2 minutes is worth watching for its striking beauty. The visualisation uses time lapse to illuminate changes in Norwegian seasons, including snow, bare branches, differing shading and light, as well as the fullness of trees before leaves go from green to brown.

Each of the examples above makes use of ‘pictorial superiority effect’. Neurologically, if information is presented to you orally, you’ll retain about 10% after 72 hours. Add a picture and ‘recall soars to 65%’, says Alex Lundry in Chart Wars.

Infographics can also play tricks. Information can be manipulated to serve a company’s purpose or create misconceptions. Some are little more than words placed in boxes. Others are woefully designed. Worst of all is the Infographic that highlights too little information for the sake of easy comprehension to the detriment of important fine print.

But as this simple Infographic shows,

much can be imparted with a good visual and effective stats.

Australian content agency, Curated Content, predicts that 2012 will be the year for visual content. With the rise of microblogging and photo sharing through the beautiful website platform Tumblr and the past year’s increase of a greater respect for typography, space and colour on the web overall, this will certainly occur on many levels, including further innovation and proliferation of the Infographic.

Until 2012, this consensus cloud on ‘Books Everyone Should Read’ makes for holiday reading ideas. Enjoy.

Diane Simonelli

Diane Simonelli has worked in marketing, publishing, PR and on websites in Melbourne and London. Her short stories have won awards including the Boroondarah Literary Prize and her second novel received an Australian Arts Council grant. A mother of two young boys, she delights in new forms of media and treasures classic print.

More by Diane Simonelli ›

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  1. Once again Diane Simonelli, you have produced an insightful and thought-provoking reflection on infographics, and remain my must-watch writer of the year! As an internet information enthusiast, i was fascinated by the examples you offered as well as some truly astounding statistics. Who was to know that my feeble attempts to draw diagrams for exam revision in University were to thank for my subsequent understanding? This piece truly encompasses some of the key issues for discussion surrounding the internet phenomenon, and raises in myself more questions i now, thanks to you, wish to further research.

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