Data optimisation is key

Data visualization expert says the secret to optimising infographics is distilling the core information

Tags: Teradata Corporation (www.teradata.com)
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Data optimisation is key Infographics should impart information and meaning, not just overload with data, says McCandless.
By  Georgina Enzer Published  April 12, 2011

Distilling data down to its essential elements, instead of packing in as much information as possible can create better understandable infographics, data visualisation expert and data journalist, David McCandless told journalists in Barcelona at the Teledata ‘Do More With Your Data' conference.

McCandless recently released his new book entitled ‘Information is Beautiful', which delves into the world of optimised infographics, looking at topics ranging from most common words in star sign predictions to ‘The Billion Dollar-O-Gram', which compares money spent on the Iraq war with other budgets including the UN budget.

He says the secret to creating infographics that transfer meaning rather than a mass of information is simplicity.

"Newspapers and magazines fill the page and put as much information in as possible. My approach is really about distilling the subject, the idea or the concept to its minimum, so trying to remove as much of the secondary information as possible and getting the core of it revealed. That is the very much the principle of design, industrial design or web design, to distil things down to their essence," said McCandless.

There is a very important difference between simplified and optimised information, according to McCandless, and he says he tries to optimise information and remove as much excessive detail as possible.

" I think the basic trends in journalism infographics is to pile in as much information as possible, which I feel is perhaps based on anxiety and fear of white space, so I would say that is what perhaps differentiates my approach," he said.

Stephen Brobst, Teradata's chief technology officer says that he calls all the extra information put in charts and infographics as ‘chart junk'.

"Journalists sometimes focus on entertainment value rather than information value. USA today is a classic example of using infographics more for entertainment then for communicating information, so I think that is the difference between information density and pixel density. You want high information density, you want a lot of information in a small number of pixels, but what you don't want is to fill the page with chart information that does not add value," he said.

McCandless says his ideas for infographics have come out of being inspired and being curious, but also from feelings of frustration and ignorance.

"Many of my ideas rose out of frustration, a lot of it rises out of not understanding the news, not understanding what is going on. When you feel those feelings when you are viewing or reading an article, that is the sign of a problem, an information problem and you are feeling that because you are not being able to connect with that information because it is not being explained well enough," he said.

McCandless says there are two possible responses to these feelings of frustration, the first is to ignore them and walk away, the second is to address the problem and create a solution so the content is more understandable. 

McCandless has been heavily influenced in his optimised designs by working as an online journalist for ten years.

"When you work online, obviously you have to be working on design and that has gradually influenced me. This building sensation of being overwhelmed by information, knowing less and the desire to try and get to the core is also really what design is about," he said.

Brobst says that the fundamental difference between traditional BI tools and data visualisations is that BI tools answer business questions, while data visualisation looks at what the questions are and helps the reader interact with the data.

"I think a good visualisation is not about answering business questions, it is about what the questions are, it is about helping you discover the patterns and see the shape of the data and that is very different from business questions and putting them on a report. A good visualisation is about discovery more than the answer to the question," said Brobst.

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