More than intellectual eye-candy

A recent trend in publication design is the filling of surplus page space with boxes containing over-sized numerals which are in turn followed by text in a smaller font, the pair in combination relating a statistical fact of potential interest to readers. The larger and more sophisticated cousins of these info-pebbles are the “visualizations” of large data sets that increasing appear in glorious high-resolution colours at TED conferences and on the New York Times web site.

Though frequently at risk of acting as little more than intellectual eye-candy, used properly data visualizations play an increasingly important role in the interpretation and analysis of complex problems, as much for journalists and their readers as for scientists. Online journalist Geoff McGhee, formerly of The New York Times, ABCNews.com, and Le Monde Interactif, spent the past year at Stanford University on a Knight Journalism Fellowship studying visualizations, and produced a fascinating documentary report on the challenges posed by increasingly available and voluminous data, on the visualization tools being used to cope with the flood, and, most importantly, on the need to use these tools to support and improve comprehension and analysis of important issues. The report can be viewed in its entirety here; the introduction (on YouTube) is below, as is an interview with McGhee on his project: