— aleatory

Faux Data: Infographics

The theoretical physicist Geoffrey West criticised existing accepted thought in urban theory before coming up with a set of constants that defined the relationship between city size and the output of it’s citizens (Each time a city doubles in size it’s per capita innovation, income, etc increases by 15% – and likewise the negative social actions of crime, pollution…). Previously he found a similar efficiency in biology where the larger an organism was the less energy per unit mass it required to go about it’s life.

It’s this track record in reducing a problem domain to a simple set of rules & constraints that is so impressive. The way in which theoretical physics practitioners go about solving for x – the sense of minimalism that drives the crunching of gigs of data and seemingly chaotic environment into understandable, predictable systems. It’s raw data visualisation in it’s purest form.

And then we have the humble infographic.

A little like urban theory at present far from being a true ‘data’ oriented approach they have morphed from original good intentions into a viral sub-genre seemingly as gratification for the design community while conveying no more than a smattering of anecdotal crumbs as an afterthought. Who cares if it’s insightful so long as it’s typeface looks cool.

Unconvinced?

Look at a recent effort from the popular information is beautiful site. The title leads us to believe there is a message about debt buried in the animated visualisations. Well, that’s a matter for debate. There is a bunch of figures expressed in terms of tetris blocks with area equating to amount. But it’s such a jumble of data without any clever way of giving context or connection beyond one dimensional “Data A vs Data B” scalar quantities.

For instance, the cost of the credit crunch is compared to African debt. One is many times more than the other. Perhaps worth some kind of further analysis, if only to see if there is some kind of basic relationship holding these unrelated numbers together. But it’s actually at the end of the clip, one that started off with everything from Tesco’s revenue to some guy’s net worth to the annual level of corporate tax evasion. The clever bit is apparently getting all these random amounts to slot together nicely as Tetris blocks….

So what? Where is the relationship? What is linking them? Where is the message?

And so here is an animated gimmick that tells us a bunch of unrelated numbers and surprisingly enough doesn’t try to relate them. It’s medium is certainly graphical. Is the data presented really ‘info’? Has the web deluge instead merely managed to dilute ‘info’ to mean any random factoid? I’ll be honest, there are people out there describing themselves as data geeks and I doubt they’ve touched the fundamentals of mathematics since GCSE.

Btw I’m in no way picking on just the above case, it just happened to be the first one I found. The web’s full of similarly vacuous ‘infographics’ that offer little in the way of truly informing people..

Undoubtedly there is an important place for real data graphics in popular science today. Peer through the sea of non-existent ‘insight’ and hubris surrounding the more widely circulated pseudo-data variant. The best graphics can guide the viewer no matter what they’re level of expertise to take in a startling array of data in a matter of seconds and crucially allow expression of context and relationship.

We need to get back to what infographics were developed for: rich visualisations of complex data expressed in a manner that conveys a simple overarching relationship to the observer free from narcissistic clutter and plain randomness.

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