Through times, data visualization has worked as a great tool to reveal stories in sets of data. The recipe has been to find a story in the data, attach visual cues to establish a base of familiarity and expectation and boil the data down to the most significant message. When done well, data becomes more accessible and more meaningful.
Today with the web, the conditions have changed. We have technologies that enable new ways to store, collect and share large amount of data as well as the social web that generate tons of real time data, which implies a great mass of dynamic data to deal with. This means we don’t have the same control of the outcome as we had before when we worked with a limit static set of data.
With these new conditions it seems like the designer has shifted role from proving a point to create tools that makes it easy for people to discover and find their own stories. The tools are more about letting them navigate through and understand rich and varied flows of information, using their behavior as navigation. Instead of being a passive observer the user can participate in the exploration.
Here are some intriguing data visualization tools that put the user in the driver’s seat:
Stamen design, a small design and technology studio in San Francisco, work a lot with real time data and infographics. They created Trulia Snapshot that helps you localize homes for sale, and explore different variables like if it’s cheap, expensive, newest on the market, and longest on the market.
They also created Oakland Crimespotting, an interactive map of crimes in Oakland that helps people to sort and understand crime in cities. With this tool you can navigate hour by hour and over time.
Together with Small Batch Inc. Jeffrey Veen has a few data visualization projects going on, one of them is Wikirank, a tool for exploring new trends on Wikipedia, discovering comparisons between topics and sharing them with the world. He also gave an inspiring talk on the subject at Web 2.0 Expo.
The New York Times creates some really interesting data visualizations; I especially like Casualties of war where you can investigate casualties during war in Iraq through times. The New York Times also let the mass audience participate in their Visualization lab , creating information graphs of all sorts.
Getty images got a whole stack of discovery tools to explore photos. One of the latest is moodstream that enable the possibility to sort pictures by mood.
This one is not new but I really like the visualization of Lee Byron’s histogram What have I been listening to? that shows music listening history with data aggregated from Last.fm. With inspiration from his work Andrew Godwin created a graph generator where you can generate your music from Last.fm, and compare with friends.
For more inspiration check out Visual complexity, a gallery with a variety of different visualization methods.
This approach, where designers let people use their own minds to draw their own conclusions isn’t new. But with these new conditions it becomes more essential to control the flood of information that people meet every day by putting them in the driver’s seat manipulating data in their own way, telling their own stories.
About the article’s writer: Johanna Olander works as an interaction designer and visual designer at the National Library of Sweden/LIBRIS division. She mostly works with LIBRIS the Swedish Union Catalogue, but also with other library related applications.