The beauty of data visualization | David McCandless


It feels like we’re all suffering from information overload or data glut. And the good news is there might be an easy solution to that, and that’s using our eyes more. So, visualizing information, so that we can see the patterns and connections that matter and then designing that information so it makes more sense, or it tells a story, or allows us to focus only on the information that’s important. Failing that, visualized information can just look really cool. So, let’s see. This is the $Billion Dollar o-Gram, and this image arose out of frustration I had with the reporting of billion-dollar amounts in the press. That is, they’re meaningless without context: 500 billion for this pipeline, 20 billion for this war. It doesn’t make any sense, so the only way to understand it is visually and relatively. So I scraped a load of reported figures from various news outlets and then scaled the boxes according to those amounts. And the colors here represent the motivation behind the money. So purple is “fighting,” and red is “giving money away,” and green is “profiteering.” And what you can see straight away is you start to have a different relationship to the numbers. You can literally see them. But more importantly, you start to see patterns and connections between numbers that would otherwise be scattered across multiple news reports. Let me point out some that I really like. This is OPEC’s revenue, this green box here — 780 billion a year. And this little pixel in the corner — three billion — that’s their climate change fund. Americans, incredibly generous people — over 300 billion a year, donated to charity every year, compared with the amount of foreign aid given by the top 17 industrialized nations at 120 billion. Then of course, the Iraq War, predicted to cost just 60 billion back in 2003. And it mushroomed slightly. Afghanistan and Iraq mushroomed now to 3,000 billion. So now it’s great because now we have this texture, and we can add numbers to it as well. So we could say, well, a new figure comes out … let’s see African debt. How much of this diagram do you think might be taken up by the debt that Africa owes to the West? Let’s take a look. So there it is: 227 billion is what Africa owes. And the recent financial crisis, how much of this diagram might that figure take up? What has that cost the world? Let’s take a look at that. Dooosh — Which I think is the appropriate sound effect for that much money: 11,900 billion. So, by visualizing this information, we turned it into a landscape that you can explore with your eyes, a kind of map really, a sort of information map. And when you’re lost in information, an information map is kind of useful. So I want to show you another landscape now. We need to imagine what a landscape of the world’s fears might look like. Let’s take a look. This is Mountains Out of Molehills, a timeline of global media panic. (Laughter) So, I’ll label this for you in a second. But the height here, I want to point out, is the intensity of certain fears as reported in the media. Let me point them out. So this, swine flu — pink. Bird flu. SARS — brownish here. Remember that one? The millennium bug, terrible disaster. These little green peaks are asteroid collisions. (Laughter) And in summer, here, killer wasps. (Laughter) So these are what our fears look like over time in our media. But what I love — and I’m a journalist — and what I love is finding hidden patterns; I love being a data detective. And there’s a very interesting and odd pattern hidden in this data that you can only see when you visualize it. Let me highlight it for you. See this line, this is a landscape for violent video games. As you can see, there’s a kind of odd, regular pattern in the data, twin peaks every year. If we look closer, we see those peaks occur at the same month every year. Why? Well, November, Christmas video games come out, and there may well be an upsurge in the concern about their content. But April isn’t a particularly massive month for video games. Why April? Well, in April 1999 was the Columbine shooting, and since then, that fear has been remembered by the media and echoes through the group mind gradually through the year. You have retrospectives, anniversaries, court cases, even copy-cat shootings, all pushing that fear into the agenda. And there’s another pattern here as well. Can you spot it? See that gap there? There’s a gap, and it affects all the other stories. Why is there a gap there? You see where it starts? September 2001, when we had something very real to be scared about. So, I’ve been working as a data journalist for about a year, and I keep hearing a phrase all the time, which is this: “Data is the new oil.” Data is the kind of ubiquitous resource that we can shape to provide new innovations and new insights, and it’s all around us, and it can be mined very easily. It’s not a particularly great metaphor in these times, especially if you live around the Gulf of Mexico, but I would, perhaps, adapt this metaphor slightly, and I would say that data is the new soil. Because for me, it feels like a fertile, creative medium. Over the years, online, we’ve laid down a huge amount of information and data, and we irrigate it with networks and connectivity, and it’s been worked and tilled by unpaid workers and governments. And, all right, I’m kind of milking the metaphor a little bit. But it’s a really fertile medium, and it feels like visualizations, infographics, data visualizations, they feel like flowers blooming from this medium. But if you look at it directly, it’s just a lot of numbers and disconnected facts. But if you start working with it and playing with it in a certain way, interesting things can appear and different patterns can be revealed. Let me show you this. Can you guess what this data set is? What rises twice a year, once in Easter and then two weeks before Christmas, has a mini peak every Monday, and then flattens out over the summer? I’ll take answers. (Audience: Chocolate.) David McCandless: Chocolate. You might want to get some chocolate in. Any other guesses? (Audience: Shopping.) DM: Shopping. Yeah, retail therapy might help. (Audience: Sick leave.) DM: Sick leave. Yeah, you’ll definitely want to take some time off. Shall we see? (Laughter) (Applause) So, the information guru Lee Byron and myself, we scraped 10,000 status Facebook updates for the phrase “break-up” and “broken-up” and this is the pattern we found — people clearing out for Spring Break, (Laughter) coming out of very bad weekends on a Monday, being single over the summer, and then the lowest day of the year, of course: Christmas Day. Who would do that? So there’s a titanic amount of data out there now, unprecedented. But if you ask the right kind of question, or you work it in the right kind of way, interesting things can emerge. So information is beautiful. Data is beautiful. I wonder if I could make my life beautiful. And here’s my visual C.V. I’m not quite sure I’ve succeeded. Pretty blocky, the colors aren’t that great. But I wanted to convey something to you. I started as a programmer, and then I worked as a writer for many years, about 20 years, in print, online and then in advertising, and only recently have I started designing. And I’ve never been to design school. I’ve never studied art or anything. I just kind of learned through doing. And when I started designing, I discovered an odd thing about myself. I already knew how to design, but it wasn’t like I was amazingly brilliant at it, but more like I was sensitive to the ideas of grids and space and alignment and typography. It’s almost like being exposed to all this media over the years had instilled a kind of dormant design literacy in me. And I don’t feel like I’m unique. I feel that everyday, all of us now are being blasted by information design. It’s being poured into our eyes through the Web, and we’re all visualizers now; we’re all demanding a visual aspect to our information. There’s something almost quite magical about visual information. It’s effortless, it literally pours in. And if you’re navigating a dense information jungle, coming across a beautiful graphic or a lovely data visualization, it’s a relief, it’s like coming across a clearing in the jungle. I was curious about this, so it led me to the work of a Danish physicist called Tor Norretranders, and he converted the bandwidth of the senses into computer terms. So here we go. This is your senses, pouring into your senses every second. Your sense of sight is the fastest. It has the same bandwidth as a computer network. Then you have touch, which is about the speed of a USB key. And then you have hearing and smell, which has the throughput of a hard disk. And then you have poor old taste, which is like barely the throughput of a pocket calculator. And that little square in the corner, a naught .7 percent, that’s the amount we’re actually aware of. So a lot of your vision — the bulk of it is visual, and it’s pouring in. It’s unconscious. The eye is exquisitely sensitive to patterns in variations in color, shape and pattern. It loves them, and it calls them beautiful. It’s the language of the eye. If you combine the language of the eye with the language of the mind, which is about words and numbers and concepts, you start speaking two languages simultaneously, each enhancing the other. So, you have the eye, and then you drop in the concepts. And that whole thing — it’s two languages both working at the same time. So we can use this new kind of language, if you like, to alter our perspective or change our views. Let me ask you a simple question with a really simple answer: Who has the biggest military budget? It’s got to be America, right? Massive. 609 billion in 2008 — 607, rather. So massive, in fact, that it can contain all the other military budgets in the world inside itself. Gobble, gobble, gobble, gobble, gobble. Now, you can see Africa’s total debt there and the U.K. budget deficit for reference. So that might well chime with your view that America is a sort of warmongering military machine, out to overpower the world with its huge industrial-military complex. But is it true that America has the biggest military budget? Because America is an incredibly rich country. In fact, it’s so massively rich that it can contain the four other top industrialized nations’ economies inside itself, it’s so vastly rich. So its military budget is bound to be enormous. So, to be fair and to alter our perspective, we have to bring in another data set, and that data set is GDP, or the country’s earnings. Who has the biggest budget as a proportion of GDP? Let’s have a look. That changes the picture considerably. Other countries pop into view that you, perhaps, weren’t considering, and American drops into eighth. Now you can also do this with soldiers. Who has the most soldiers? It’s got to be China. Of course, 2.1 million. Again, chiming with your view that China has a militarized regime ready to, you know, mobilize its enormous forces. But of course, China has an enormous population. So if we do the same, we see a radically different picture. China drops to 124th. It actually has a tiny army when you take other data into consideration. So, absolute figures, like the military budget, in a connected world, don’t give you the whole picture. They’re not as true as they could be. We need relative figures that are connected to other data so that we can see a fuller picture, and then that can lead to us changing our perspective. As Hans Rosling, the master, my master, said, “Let the dataset change your mindset.” And if it can do that, maybe it can also change your behavior. Take a look at this one. I’m a bit of a health nut. I love taking supplements and being fit, but I can never understand what’s going on in terms of evidence. There’s always conflicting evidence. Should I take vitamin C? Should I be taking wheatgrass? This is a visualization of all the evidence for nutritional supplements. This kind of diagram is called a balloon race. So the higher up the image, the more evidence there is for each supplement. And the bubbles correspond to popularity as regards to Google hits. So you can immediately apprehend the relationship between efficacy and popularity, but you can also, if you grade the evidence, do a “worth it” line. So supplements above this line are worth investigating, but only for the conditions listed below, and then the supplements below the line are perhaps not worth investigating. Now this image constitutes a huge amount of work. We scraped like 1,000 studies from PubMed, the biomedical database, and we compiled them and graded them all. And it was incredibly frustrating for me because I had a book of 250 visualizations to do for my book, and I spent a month doing this, and I only filled two pages. But what it points to is that visualizing information like this is a form of knowledge compression. It’s a way of squeezing an enormous amount of information and understanding into a small space. And once you’ve curated that data, and once you’ve cleaned that data, and once it’s there, you can do cool stuff like this. So I converted this into an interactive app, so I can now generate this application online — this is the visualization online — and I can say, “Yeah, brilliant.” So it spawns itself. And then I can say, “Well, just show me the stuff that affects heart health.” So let’s filter that out. So heart is filtered out, so I can see if I’m curious about that. I think, “No, no. I don’t want to take any synthetics, I just want to see plants and — just show me herbs and plants. I’ve got all the natural ingredients.” Now this app is spawning itself from the data. The data is all stored in a Google Doc, and it’s literally generating itself from that data. So the data is now alive; this is a living image, and I can update it in a second. New evidence comes out. I just change a row on a spreadsheet. Doosh! Again, the image recreates itself. So it’s cool. It’s kind of living. But it can go beyond data, and it can go beyond numbers. I like to apply information visualization to ideas and concepts. This is a visualization of the political spectrum, an attempt for me to try and understand how it works and how the ideas percolate down from government into society and culture, into families, into individuals, into their beliefs and back around again in a cycle. What I love about this image is it’s made up of concepts, it explores our worldviews and it helps us — it helps me anyway — to see what others think, to see where they’re coming from. And it feels just incredibly cool to do that. What was most exciting for me designing this was that, when I was designing this image, I desperately wanted this side, the left side, to be better than the right side — being a journalist, a Left-leaning person — but I couldn’t, because I would have created a lopsided, biased diagram. So, in order to really create a full image, I had to honor the perspectives on the right-hand side and at the same time, uncomfortably recognize how many of those qualities were actually in me, which was very, very annoying and uncomfortable. (Laughter) But not too uncomfortable, because there’s something unthreatening about seeing a political perspective, versus being told or forced to listen to one. You’re capable of holding conflicting viewpoints joyously when you can see them. It’s even fun to engage with them because it’s visual. So that’s what’s exciting to me, seeing how data can change my perspective and change my mind midstream — beautiful, lovely data. So, just to wrap up, I wanted to say that it feels to me that design is about solving problems and providing elegant solutions, and information design is about solving information problems. It feels like we have a lot of information problems in our society at the moment, from the overload and the saturation to the breakdown of trust and reliability and runaway skepticism and lack of transparency, or even just interestingness. I mean, I find information just too interesting. It has a magnetic quality that draws me in. So, visualizing information can give us a very quick solution to those kinds of problems. Even when the information is terrible, the visual can be quite beautiful. Often we can get clarity or the answer to a simple question very quickly, like this one, the recent Icelandic volcano. Which was emitting the most CO2? Was it the planes or the volcano, the grounded planes or the volcano? So we can have a look. We look at the data and we see: Yep, the volcano emitted 150,000 tons; the grounded planes would have emitted 345,000 if they were in the sky. So essentially, we had our first carbon-neutral volcano. (Laughter) (Applause) And that is beautiful. Thank you. (Applause)

100 Comments

  1. @ShallowBeThyGames
    That certainly will be the case. I was for instance thinking of taking all the data the cia.gov website has through a simple script and then make countries like China & US comparable on all possible scales like x = age, Y = child-mortality, Color = total inhabitant per country and regular Text for additional variable comparison =)

    How main question is, how many people would actually use such a service?

  2. I think data visualisation is the new wave that will transform the way we look at the world. Foursquare tells you where you hang out, Sniftag tells you who your dog is seeing and augmented reality adds another layer to reality. What comes after that could be scary: setting standards and automatic adjustments. Coming home and your intelligent house putting up a Michael Bolton song because you seem "stressed".

  3. @WeatherManToBe What's easier to visualize and compare?

    1 trillion and 20 billion?

    or 1,000 billion and 20 billion.

  4. Wait a minute! Did this guy just say (at about 16:00) that because he is a journalist that he "naturally" leans to the left of the political spectrum?

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  6. @takigan I respect a watch that is more badass than me.

    (That's not very much, but still. It's very hard for a watch.)

  7. @DrQuijano I'm with cykolink – though USA has it the other way, in most other countries red is for the left and (maybe) blue on the right. Orange for the more socialized/unionized left, (red and) black for the fascists, green for the environmental, etc.

  8. I disagree about the military numbers. What's important in a military is how much damage it can do to other nations, not how much money is available to be spent, or how many people AREN'T in it. When you get down to it, a military only represents and acts on the orders of its government (if that) and is not accountable to the people at all.

  9. I don't know where he got his bandwidth figures of computer devices at 09:25, but they're all vastly off the mark.

    It shows:
    1250 MB/s – same bandwidth as a computer network
    125 MB/s – USB key
    12.5 MB/s – hard disk

    A computer network is a rather vague description, but 1000 Mbit/s (125 MB/s) is the fastest consumer level network card speed.

    USB 2.0 is limited to 60MB/s. Most USB keys transfer at a max of ~30 MB/s.

    A hard disk transfers at up to ~150 MB/s.

    Where did he get these numbers?

  10. so, it's all "let's make information look pretty enough that you put it up in a gallery, with better layout that make people pay attnetion". Surely what you need to be doing is giving the cold hard facts if you're presenting some very important imformation to some very important people (execs, business men etc), not spending ages making a pretty layout to put it all on? Seems a bit bizarre and not very important, and wouldn't really make much of a difference anway, but I'll go along with it.

  11. @DeadWhiteButterflies Are you deaf and blind? Dont you see how using good design makes everything easier to comprehend, thus you can give a shorter or more clear talk.

  12. 1926……Oyster
    1931………Oyster Perpetual
    1956……Day-Date
    1980s……cell phones come out and Rolex is deemed obsolete……

  13. I agree, that context is very important, but who chooses what's important? I think images are easier to believe, but they contain also way better possibilities of suggesting things that aren't, – even more dangerous than really wrong data, because they might be correct, and still portray and transmit the wrong idea! Think about this for a second. I'd be careful with over rating, and being overly happy with visualised data!

  14. theres no bad data. its correct information, people not understanding things is not relevant. and I dont see difference between visual and nonevisual

  15. Sure, but I'll let Stephen Few speak: " In McCandless’ case, the stories that they usually tell, if communicated in words alone, would require only a short sentence or two. They make a simple statement in a way that looks lighthearted and fun. As such, they invite viewers to accept the message superficially, not to explore or contemplate deeply. This is not the true realm of analytics."

  16. @ChrisAFM Effective visualizations tell the story of the data. He just makes a pretty picture that is very hard to figure out what is going on. Hence the bad name I discuss.

  17. @ChrisAFM Read Stepehen Few's blog, Perceptual Edge for more. Do a google search for "perceptualedge, David McCandless. He has a 1 page review of this presentation and is more eloquent than I

  18. I can visualize things quite neatly as well if I Ignore major things and create my own universe of information without a clear set of criteria other than as I like. The "fears" thing is a primary example, it's a bit of nonsense ot talk about "here's fears the media reports" and ignore 9/11 and terrorism and say "ah, that created a gap!" Even though that's not the point, it's the visualizations, problem is that how do you visualize the more complex reality he ignores?

  19. This presentation is more about lies, damn lies, and statistics and how to visualize things to your liking. There is NOTHING wrong with that, I just think the true message here has less to do with comprehensive visualization of complex data than dumbing down data to dismiss what you don't like. Otherwise, each example he has given actually requires MANY visualization and just isn't so simple anymore.

  20. Does anyone know what the name of the first graph he shows is? The one with the rectangles of relative size based on data values? I'm trying to find a already built mechanism for graphing my data in this way but I don't know what to search for?

  21. Zornwil, he specifically said, "This is the landscape for violent video games". Not, "This is the landscape for media driven fear". Point? The media only discussed 1 subject, terrorism.

    Therefore, there WOULD be a gap in data representing the, "landscape for violent video games".

    My co-workers didn't understand that part either.

  22. This talk would have made my exclusive favorites list a number of different ways.  His closing remarks alone bring a new kind of stunning realization about global warming and (more specifically) carbon emissions…  The Iceland volcano put out less than we do every day with airline flights alone.  Shocking.

  23. Great talk about how to turn complex data sets into beautiful, simple diagrams that tease out hidden patterns and connections and even may change the way we see the world. It also provides some interesting real world examples with some unexpected insights.

  24. A very thought-provoking talk that fits nicely with my current courses on problem-solving through comm tech and philosophy of tech in education. McCandless' discussion on visualization and on 'data as the new soil' reminded me a lot of Marshall McLuhan's notions of how the literate culture (the age of writing) is dominated by the eye (also reinforced by the coloured visualization of 9:20) and of his concepts of 'rootedness' and the need to examine the soil from which we are growing as human beings (i.e., how has technology changed the soil makeup? how does that affect our senses and ways of understanding?). I agree that I, too, find myself longing for large chunks of written text to be converted (compressed) into an image/diagram and am relieved when this happens. I think this longing goes hand-in-hand with the speediness of vision.

  25. We are all in debt to the carbon sinks, it used to be the carbon banks. But the internet search engines don't reflect that phrase the same anymore, adapted metaphors i guesses.

  26. Information design my bum.. one of the first principles you learn is to avoid using reddish hues with green ones as color codes, because there are people out there who are COLOR BLIND!

  27. I think TED is the most fun and can know very amazing interesting informations if we see and watch during left over times. This video was so inspire me by using data in many ways~!

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