Today's consumer seems to have an insatiable appetite for information, but until recently making sense of all of that raw data was too daunting for most. Enter the new "visual scientists" who are turning bits and bytes of data -- once purely the domain of mathematicians and coders -- into stories for our digital age.
Maybe it was the way CNN's John King made sense of the minutiae of delegate data from this past year's election on a giant touch screen, or how Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight parsed polling data -- either way the art of "data visualization" has exploded recently and it is fundamentally changing the way we create and consume narratives about events, products and services.
Google has built a pretty good brand and business off of organizing the world's information, of course. Through its Search, Maps, Trends and Zeitgeist products (to name just a few), Google makes data more accessible to consumers in a meaningful way, all with an eye towards advertising on every byte of it. Google has even -- literally -- pursued this data route to Mars, and has scaled to the moon, sky and ocean, albeit the opportunity for advertising on these newer services is a bit murkier.
Now the mainstream is starting to follow suit:
Publishers: The New York Times, which has always done stunning infographic work, is helping to push data visualization to a mass audience with its "Visualization Lab." The service, created in partnership with IBM, allows users to create visual representations of all sorts of information, such as charts, graphs and maps, and then share and comment. Similarly, the Economist employs data visualization to graphically represent an ongoing conversation as part of its "Debate" series, which enables the user to track the developments and change in sentiment on a daily basis.
Advertisers: Visa, as part of its new "Go" campaign, is integrating data into its advertising. The "Go" microsite features seemingly random bits of data (16,438 people in Paris smiling back at the Mona Lisa) that the user can explore to see how Visa is "helping more people go places and do things." Similarly, the banner ads feature live video streamed from cities (such as Times Square in New York) around the world that show people "going" and utilizes similar data.
Products: Flickr, the online photo-sharing service from Yahoo, just recently released the Flickr Clock a browser -- and very nifty advertisement, actually -- that showcases the videos that users are now able to upload to the site. The videos are graphically displayed in a scrolling timeline that the user controls.
Agencies: The Flickr project was created by Stamen Design, a small San Francisco design studio that has been behind some of the most impressive work in the infographic space. The firm has created the SFMOMA ArtScope project which is a completely interactive and visual browsing tool that makes browsing the 3,500 objects from the museum both immersive and entertaining. The firm also created Oakland Crimespotting, a service that elegantly -- and frighteningly -- maps crimes occurring across the city and enables users to sort through the data in a personally meaningful way (e.g. block-by-block).
Artists: The rock band Radiohead is working to turn data visualization into an art form with its music video, "House of Cards." Using neither cameras nor lights, the band employed two technologies called Geometric Informatics and Velodyne LIDAR to capture 3D data and transform it into a series of stunning images. Radiohead recently opened up the data to the world, in partnership with Google, to remix.
All of this data visualization is, of course, really just a new way to tell stories (or create experiences) out of the very base matter of the web itself. Data visualization is probably not a foreign concept for anyone familiar with the work of information-design pioneer Professor Edward Tufte, but it's the advances in technology at the presentation layer and the new found ability to tap into once hidden data sources that is enabling these new visual scientists to chart a new narrative course.
Now there are two questions that all advertisers, publishers and agencies need to ask of themselves: "What data do you have that is truly valuable?" and "How can you create a meaningful experience or narrative out of it?" The answers, we may find, will become the catalyst for a more authentic way to tell stories in our digital era.
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Garrick Schmitt is group VP-experience planning at Razorfish and the agency's global lead for User Experience. He publishes FEED, Razorfish's annual consumer experience report, and writes and edits the Razorfish Digital Design Blog. In his spare time he flails about on Twitter @gschmitt. The New York Times, CNN, The Economist and Visa are Razorfish clients.