Information is Beautiful – Live
I’m sure most children, as they grew up, were subjected to a range of household traditions. Among the many I was exposed to in the 80s and 90s were the annual Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. Of course, I didn’t really know then what the Royal Institution was, only that every year we got to sit in front of the telly and watch someone talk about maths or science in a way that a young person could really engage with. The venue has held some mystic identity for me ever since, and later through reading and listening I understood more about its place in history, but never once considered it would be a place I would go to watch a talk.
So when my universes collided and I found out that there would be a data visualisation talk there, I was definitely going to attend. I was aware of David McCandless long before I was even aware of data visualisation as a field since I picked up Information Is Beautiful at the start of the decade as a coffee table feature, and had gifted copies of the book to friends and relatives.
Having now found it as a career choice, spending time producing visualisations, establishing my own feelings towards the various spectra and nuances that exist within it, I came to the talk as someone who openly leans towards the more functional, Stephen Few aligned perspective. But looking back, it was clearly this more form-led, David McCandless style that drew me in to begin with, and it turns out that is a fine analogy for my feelings towards this session. In the lead -up I discussed briefly with Neil Richards (of Neil Richards fame) who rightly extolled the virtues of hearing the full range of perspectives. In discussing with colleagues on the way to the talk I found myself talking along those lines, making the argument that creative, engaging visualisations can be the gateway to asking further questions which themselves may require more functional and insightful representations of the same data. Sometimes, I argued, it might take something that is from the McCandless stable to stimulate and provoke in such a way that leads us to that point. I really hoped that the talk would find a way of supporting this, but would end up disappointed on that score.
The talk itself walked the audience through some of his more and less known works, followed by a Q&A session. Over, it felt simply like an in-person accompaniment to his books, and in retrospect I craved for him to spend some time sharing his process and the application that his work has. I sense that I would have been open to conversion had that been the case. Instead my cynicism did slip in at times, and I felt that even on the occasions when he mentioned the importance of context, it was really only to pay lip-service to it. In many of the works he presented, there were times when I was screaming inside “BUT WHERE’S THE AXIS?!” or similar.
There were some quite curious moments, however, which I suspect will take their time to wiggle their way around my mind before having complete impact. For instance, he shared an example of his work which looked at who is filing law suits against whom within the Telecoms trade. In this segment he began to explore the impact of removing the annotation layer from this visualisation, but then quickly segued into another topic. I would have loved for him to examine this in further detail, arguing why it is sometimes valuable to take ourselves away from the context in order to test the power or symbolism contained within a visualisation. Sadly this wasn’t forthcoming, but it’s now something I will be on the lookout for further reading on.
After the talk, Neil, Pablo and I had a debrief and reviewed the evening. Much like Andy Cotgreave’s talk on ‘What The Heck Is A Dashboard Anyway?‘ at London TUG a week before, I found the aftermath to be at least as stimulating as the talk itself, and continuing the discussion beyond the confines of the presentation a really valuable exercise for identifying my own thoughts and feelings on the topic.
For anyone who might have been interested in attending this talk, there is another scheduled in a few months time. If anyone reading this happens to go along, then I look forward to meeting you in the pub afterwards and having the discussion all over again. To my mind, having the talk is one thing, but then layering on top of it a combination of alternative views and perspectives from others is what can take it from being on the receiving end of a talk to taking away something I might apply myself. Fine-tuning this approach (and doing more listening than talking) might be one of the most useful personal developments I focus on in the near future.
Cover image from the Twitter feed of @MrTomBaker