Data Viz Overdose: How to Keep Infographics Good and Relevant

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Anthony Calabrese of MediaShift today writes about the power of infographics: “Data visualization is taking the web by storm and, with a little luck, it might be the next big thing in online journalism. Buoyed by the open data movement and accelerating change in newsrooms around the country, it has become something more than just flashy graphics and charts — it is a new form of visual communication for the 21st century.”

He goes as far to say that “this new digital alchemy can turn a simple spreadsheet into something that can…change the world.”

But is it possible to go overboard with numbers, icons and pretty colors? Alissa Walker at thinks so. “Hide your kids!” she writes, half-jokingly. “The data-viz nerds are coming for our children!”

Walker says we’ve reached a “global obsession” with data visualization, evident in everything from commercials to TV shows. But in our quest to use numbers to tell a story, especially to inspire social change, we must remember a few golden rules. (Lest we upset more people like Web designer Phil Gyford, who created an infographic in protest of…well, infographics. “Just because it’s graphical, doesn’t mean it’s useful,” he says.) Here are a few thoughts:

1. Pick up the phone. As Walker writes in, the key to crafting a compelling narrative is to be a good reporter first and a number-cruncher second, no matter how much data are at your disposal. “Yes, most of the New York Times’ award-winning infographics are researched, by a team of about 30 people, who do their reporting the old-fashioned way. It’s true…it’s always better to take a real world approach that doesn’t include an Excel document.”

2. May the source be with you. Don’t trust every number you read. Statistics can be misleading, survey methodology can be flawed, and infographic creators can be biased towards certain results. No matter how vivid the colors, read between the pixels.

3. Keep it simple. GOOD magazine educates “people who give a damn” about making the world a better place by publishing a series of infographics on everything from the impact of volcanoes to the health effects of bad teeth. Most of the visualizations are actually not interactive, proving that static graphics can be just as powerful as tricked-out, Flash-based, perfectly coded, real-time apps.

While MediaShift’s Calabrese thinks data visualization is a “new form of visual communication for the 21st century,” there are plenty of examples from generations before the Internet age that demonstrate the effectiveness of well-presented numbers. Just take a look at what English nurse/mathematician/reformer Florence Nightingale was able to do with simple pen-and-ink diagrams.

4. Think like a politician. With great power comes great responsibility, right? So wielding the power of infographics, you can choose to work for good or for evil. Consider this data-viz-for-health-care debacle: House Republican John Boehner circulated an ugly flow chart to explain the Democratic Health Plan proposal and ended up confusing and scaring the American public about issues of health care reform.

President Obama knows that infographics can sway politics, so he hired the “father of modern data visualization” Edward Tufte as an advisor to illustrate how economic stimulus funding was being used.