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The chart is the message

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TargetPoint‘s VP and Director of Research, Alex Lundry, was recently a featured speaker at DC Ignite, where he gave an enlightening talk on the Political Power of Data Visualization.

The talk is only 5 minutes long and consists of insights into how data visualisations can be used for political ends. It also includes this reconfiguration of the famous H.G. Wells quote:

Statistical Visual thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write.”

He begins with a discussion of House Republican John Boehner’s infographic describing the Democratic Health Plan proposal. Lundry calls it “messy, complicated and confusing” while others have described it as “a nightmare of bad color choices, poor layout, and overall obfuscated design”.

He notes how this then set off a series of Chart Wars. The Democrats quickly responded to Boehner’s chart with one of their own:

Meanwhile, the New Republic made a chart of the current health-care system:

Robert Palmer then redesigned Boehner’s chart and posted it to flickr under the title “Do not fuck with graphic designers“. Lundry describes this as “elegant, easy on the eye and brings order to the previously chaotic chart”.

Lundry does not proclaim any of the charts as “right”, rather he explains how they illustrate the Political Power of Data visualization. He notes how vision is our most dominant sense and takes up 50% of our brains’ resources. “Pictures are a superior and more efficient delivery mechanism for information”; The Pictorial Superiority Effect.

He goes on to discuss the release of data in open, machine readable formats; where anyone with a computer can create easy data visualizations using tools such as Swivel, Wordle, ManyEyes or Verifiable. As such, he explains how we can expect to see more visualizations used for messaging purposes.

The Sunlight Foundation has been a prominent proponent of data visualizations to demonstrate patterns and correlations based on government data. They believe, however, that government should concentrate on providing open, machine readable data, rather than visualizations. This is because visualizations – like we’ve seen above – can actually ‘hurt transparency’:

Visualizations, like any other form of news product, can be editorial– even inadvertently. If government puts more of a priority on producing great visualizations and user experience than on providing quality accurate data with a great feedback loop, then it runs a pretty good chance of not adhering to the goal of being actually transparent.

If Chart Wars have taught us anything it’s that visualizations can tell powerful stories; they’re quickly becoming the medium with the most powerful message.

Further reading

For more information, Lundry recommends books by:

Online check out:

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