By Matt Carroll
Sometimes bar charts are enough to tell the data story. But not always. Sometimes it pays to think more creatively and to move away from traditional ways of displaying data.
Rahul Bhargava, an MIT Media Lab researcher, told an appreciative crowd of about 100 that using data to tell a story well can be a complex process.
Bhargava said people creating data visualizations need to have a keen understanding of their audience and how they will perceive the information.
A board of directors in dark suits may be perfectly at home seeing an array of bar charts on a complicated topic; a more general audience may need to be coaxed along several steps to understand the same info, he said.
Bhargava’s topic was Data Therapy: Creative Ways to Tell Your Story with Data. The meetup was sponsored by the Boston chapter of Hacks/Hackers, a two-year-old group dedicated to uniting media and technologists around topics of common interest. It was held at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge last week.
Bhargava took the media’s tried-and-true formula of “who, what, when, where, why and how” and turned it into a lesson in creating an informed visualization.
“Who” is knowing your audience. “What” is about finding and characterizing the data. “Why” involves identifying goals, such as informing the public, changing public policy, or growing a group. “When” and “Where” – what are the settings for the visualization and what is the medium that will be used? And “How” involves the technique, such as software or a physical demonstration.
He encouraged people to break away from the common data viz routes – bar charts and pie charts — and think about totally different ways to present data.
For instance, a photograph of a soda bottle, partially filled with white sugar, illustrated the health hazards of soda.
Another person created bar charts in a park by taping sheets of plastic to a brick wall, illustrating how much people liked various local parks. It was simple, easy to understand, and was perfect placed for its intended audience – people at the park.
He also showed several effective traditional charts. A line chart by a Canadian water company showed how water usage – through toilet flushes – spiked between periods of an important hockey game.
The next Hacks/Hackers meetup, “Design for Coders: SND + HH visual workshop,” is scheduled for June 16.