There's no overstating the enormity of the data we have to deal with everyday. "In 24 hours”, says Rick Smolan, author of The Human Face of Big Data,”we are deluged with all the information an ancestor of ours from the fifteenth century would have been exposed to in an entire lifetime." And, with the Internet of things just around the corner, it's going to get even bigger: network services leader, Cisco, has predicted a 13-fold increase in mobile Internet traffic, alone, over the coming four years.
The uses this data has - from allowing better planning of urban infrastructure to mapping a Calcutta slum, thus giving its inhabitants access to heath care facilities - are many and infinite.
The real ongoing challenge, however, is to find new and more natural ways of accessing this information, and to help people explore and present their data more effectively. Which brings us to the colourful shores of infographics - the art (and science) of making complex information easier to parse.
Israeli start-up and self-styled "home of data visualisation and infographics," Visually, has just launched its free Google Analytics reporting tool. After a speedy sign-up procedure, it turns the user's web traffic data into an emailable infographic - analysing page views, social engagement, SEO and "bounce rate". Currently it only gives the option of weekly reports, but, if it’s a nicely presented snapshot you’re after, rather than on-the-minute updates, it’s ideal and it’s free. It’s also the very latest in a stream of startups intent on cracking the visual analytics market and becoming the go-to platform for big data.
But there’s more to it than that.
Microsoft is currently working on SketchInsight, an interactive whiteboard system for storytelling with data through real-time sketching. It's still at the prototype stage, but it seems to be part of Microsoft's plan to present big data in a more meaningful way.
Projects dealing with localised representations are also sprouting up, such as Here and There, by London design consultancy, Berg, exploring speculative, horizonless projections of dense urban landscapes like Manhattan. It effectively wires two bits of the brain together - the bit that does maps and the bit that does perspective. So the foreground is projected in perspective view, but fuses with the plan view of the further parts of the city. One effectively has the superpower to see right "through" he city into the distance. Its potential for SatNav applications is immense.
Another illuminating Berg project, in collaboration with the BBC, is HowBigReally.com, which takes historically or culturally important events and overlays them in physical terms over a satellite google map of your neighbourhood. It's highly effective in bringing home the human scale of events and places in history. (In just its first 30 days it clocked up 1.3 million page views.)
Aesthetics aren't everything
"Designed information can help us understand the world, cut through BS and reveal the hidden connections, patterns and stories underneath," writes David McCandless, author of Information Is Beautiful. "Or, failing that, it can just look cool!"
But aesthetics aren’t everything. Research into the cognitive implications of information visualisation is still in its infancy and many challenges remain. Some types of displays have received more study than others. Graphs, for instance, have been subject to a great deal of research. In her authoritative paper, The Cognitive Science of Visual-Spatial Displays: Implications for Design (pdf), psychologist Mary Hegarty writes that it is too early to say how more varied and ill-defined tasks, such as data exploration and the more complex displays being developed, will scale up.
“We know very little about whether and how people will use the interactive functions provided by new visualisation technologies,” she writes. “Research on metacognition has indicated that people's preferences for displays do not always correlate with the actual effectiveness of these displays for the task in hand. There's a clear need to evaluate display designs empirically - and to develop cognitive models that helps us better predict their likely effectiveness."
So, while the need to effectively represent massive amounts of often complex information exists, developers would do well to study design principles such as: the need for natural mappings, the potential for disorientation and the limitations of working memory, to name but a few. It’s an area where a user centred design approach may be difficult to implement but the benefits will be important and lasting.