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How good practice in design and data visualisation can support innovation

Leonora Oppenheim, Design Storyteller, Director of Creative Data 
 
“We are now firmly in the era of big data.” This emphatic opening to the Design Special Interest Group’s new report on Design and Data Visualisation gets straight to the point. Without doubt you have been hearing a lot, over the last few years, about the importance of collecting and measuring data to better understand the mechanisms driving business and social trends in our digital world. 
 
The Design SIG’s mission is to bring together the UK design and technology innovation communities and as such we have produced this report as a useful guide on how data is becoming increasingly important to innovators. High performance computing, cloud computing and network connectivity has facilitated public and commercially funded R&D to accelerate data generation, modelling and analysis. This has increased the ability to reuse, share, model and manipulate data to create new knowledge and innovative products and services.
 
We know, for example, thanks to contemporary computational power, personal genome mapping can now be done in a matter of days for a tiny fraction of the cost it took to map the first genome over thirteen years. We have the ability to map patterns in real time, for crowd control, infection outbreaks and financial trading. We can build whole virtual worlds to test consumer products, cars, heavy machinery and even defence strategies. All these technological capabilities are being used to increase well-being, safety and security in the real and online worlds. 
 
The question now is not, why do we need to pay attention to big data, but more, how do we help people understand it? As the term suggests, big data involves extraordinary amounts of information, which can be unwieldy and difficult to interpret. However, gathering information is not enough to make a useful impact. It is the legibility of the data that really opens up possibilities to see new arguments and opportunities, prompting innovation in strategies, production and distribution. 
 
The Design SIG report looks at how designers are playing a vital role in supporting innovation through the rapidly growing discipline of data visualisation. We have seen a huge surge in practitioners as businesses see an ever-greater need for interpreting data in interesting and engaging ways. Designers, who in their skill sets often span the quantitative and qualitative divide, are the ideal creatives to take up the challenge. Through good design training we are taught both to analyse information and take a human-centred approach in terms of a proposed solution’s usability and accessibility. All the while finding inventive new ways to communicate and make connections. 
 
Very few people find it easy to interpret huge swathes of numerical information, so transforming data into a beautiful image or form can drive home the message with more immediate impact. The prevalence of data visualisations, in online and print reporting shows the increasing demand for coherent explanations of data analysis, but, of course, not all data visualisations are equal. We have all seen infographics that are more confusing than clarifying. Many have been criticised for over simplifying the arguments or creating a bias or misunderstanding in one direction or another. 
 
The Design SIG’s report highlights, not just the broadening scope of data visualisation in innovation, but also the requirement of excellent design skills to communicate data narratives simply and effectively. The report showcases examples of good practice in the communication of information and the wide range of possible creative outputs that are being used. 
 
The 12 case studies in the report, range from the artistic end of the scale, for example in the ‘Data_Plex’ visualisations of the global financial markets by Michael Takeo Magruder, who sees his work as having a provocative, critical role, to the purely analytical in Kai Xu’s DIVA, a system that captures and annotates data visualisations, which can, for example, help identify outbreaks of infections and mitigate their impact.
 
In between these two points, we have Ian Gwilt’s  data generated sculptures that represent changes in dexterity as people age. There is Julie Freeman’s sensorial ‘Lepidopteral’ installation, which translates fluctuations in data feeds through the movement of computer-controlled wings. Continuing at the experiential end of the selection is a project I created as part of my Creative Data initiative called ‘The Butterfly Effect’. This work, in collaboration with environmental and social scientists, explored visions of future landscapes and sought to communicate what local people thought the Norfolk Broads should be used for in the future.
 
In the more analytical, rather than emotive, practice of visualising information we have ITO World’s digital illustrations of flight patterns, traffic flows and commuter journeys. An aesthetic contrast to ITO World’s work, are the effective graphic stories from Information is Beautiful , a studio that creates visualisations of infinitely tricky questions such as, what is left of our planet’s natural resources and, how to calculate the number of alien civilizations in three easy steps.
 
Perhaps less whimsical, but no less interesting are the visualisations of activity on social media. Daden’s Datascapes create digital landscapes of Twitter patterns at events such as the Farnborough Air Show, while Future Everything’s ‘emoto’ project visualised the emotional highs and lows of the Olympics through audience tweets.
 
In the ‘Learnings’ section following the case studies, these practitioners’ experiences are boiled down into a series of concise, helpful points about good practice in dealing with data when it is communicated through visualisation. Finally, there is a section called ‘Supporting Innovation’ which, looks at how using design and data visualisation can support innovation by communicating the narrative behind the metrics.
 
By no means does this report incorporate everything that is currently going on in the UK’s data visualisation industry, but it goes some way to showing the range of what is on offer and it gives direction on how you can involve designers in making sense of the hidden narratives within your data. Rather than hoping in vain that people, other than data analysts, will read your spreadsheets, you can engage good designers and translate your data into deeply valuable knowledge that can be accessed by everyone, everywhere. This, after all, is the age of transparency and communication.
 
 
"Design and Data Visualisation: Good Practice in the Communication of Information" was based on case studies and information collated by Rachel Jones and Tracy Currer, designed and edited by Leonora Oppenheim Design Storyteller, Director of Creative Data, and produced by Beatrice Rogers, Head of Design & Design SIG Lead, KTN.
 
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