Recently I downloaded an iPad app called Infographics created by the company Column Five. I found it interesting not so much because of the app itself (which has limited functionality and the recent update crashes quite frequently), but because of the rather large amount of infographics it allows you to browse quickly (unfortunately not by category or keyword and there is no search).
There are about 200 infographics in the app at present; these appear to be the same that you can also browse on Column Five’s website infographics gallery. These specimen cover a variety of categories, with a large dose of social media and Internet related topics – likely due to the sponsors paying for the creation of such artifacts. When in Portrait Mode you can read a bit more about the content of the respective infographic.
On their website Column Five talks about “What is an infographic?” Rather than define the term, they describe it using categories like Data Visualization or Information Design. From the above page:
In the age of big data, we need to both make sense of the numbers and be able to easily share the story they tell. The practice of data visualization, which is the study of the visual representation of data, typically analyzes large data sets. It seeks to uncover trends by showing meta patterns, or to make single data points easily visible and extractable. The visual display of this data is the most interesting and universal way to make it accessible to a wide audience. And as with all infographic design, the display method is rooted in the context and desired message.
This practice is the most numbers-heavy, and typically is what a purist would describe as a “true” infographic. These visualizations also tend to be more complex, as they often are attempting to display a great number of data points. In some cases, these graphics functionally serve only as art pieces, if no message can be extracted. When properly executed, however, they should be both beautiful and meaningful, allowing the viewer to decipher data and recognize trends while admiring its aesthetic appeal.
The focus is on the display of information both effectively (you get the intended message…) and efficiently (… quickly and unequivocally), to “use design to communicate a message that is both clear and universal”. Interesting that there is an element of art. We have seen this before on this Blog, for example the aesthetic appeal of Tree Maps or of Flight Pattern Visualizations – often the creators of such visualizations describe themselves as artists. I suspect that beautiful visualizations are better able to communicate a message – which is what the infographics sponsor paid for – because they appeal to the viewer aesthetically and thus tap into additional bandwidth to transport the intended message (“both beautiful and meaningful”).
As an example, consider the infographic about The Ever-Expanding Taste Graph by Hunch, published by Hunch on their Blog in May 2011. This visualization explains in broad strokes how Hunch is building a data structure – the “taste graph” – by recording people’s affinity to all kinds of things as observed and recorded from their own answers to questions and other interactions on the web.
On the one hand, it’s amazing how much data is being tracked and what kind of predictive power results from that. A graph with 500 million people nodes and 30 billion edges, running on a supercomputer with 48 processors and 1 TeraByte of RAM. Talk about a company whose business model is centered around big data! For those like me who started in Computer Science some 20+ years ago, such numbers are truly amazing. The cost of storage and processing power has exponentially declined for several decades now. As Bill Gates used to say: The effects of Moore’s law are often over-estimated in the short-term, but even more under-estimated in the long-term.
There is a disconcerting side to this, though: Very little privacy on the Internet. For most people, our online history gets more and more detailed every day… And with the explosion of social media we are volunteering so much information about ourselves, using our own time and effort, with the side-effect of enriching the social media enterprises. This has led some to observe that for social media companies, you are not the customer. You are the product!
I played Hunch’s online Twitter Predictor game. By analyzing my Twitter account and a few questions I volunteered to answer on the Hunch website they correctly predicted 94% of my responses to test answers by looking at the affinities and preferences of other people sufficiently similar to me. While some of those questions are fairly easy to predict and for many Yes/No questions even random guessing would get you 50% correct responses, such high accuracy is still interesting. Well, I guess I am that predictable. Is being predictable a good or bad thing?