Stories are all around us. As we grow up, we encounter stories in books, libraries, or through our parents and grandparents. But did you know that you can tell stories with data? Join Librarian Kevin Seet as he explores what data visualization is and how it helps tell stories about the world we live in.

As anyone who’s stared at countless rows and columns in a spreadsheet can attest, gathering data is one thing; making sense of it is another matter altogether.

To help us understand and process the data they collect, data scientists turn to something called data visualization. This is typically a graphical representation of project results or data.

The data (usually in a large, bland table full of plain text and numbers) is translated into a visual form, allowing us to understand and interpret the data more easily. These visualizations help us explain the data to an audience that needs to understand it better. Whether for stakeholders, prospects or students, data is presented visually to explain, elaborate or clarify – essentially to tell a story.

Data visualization is not new. Think of the pie charts and bar graphs that modern spreadsheet programs can easily create. However, these days, we are able to go far beyond a simple pie chart. Technology has developed new ways of understanding and presenting data, resulting in more interactive and engaging means of storytelling.

Augmented and virtual reality devices now allow us to almost physically explore data in a 3D space. Take, for example, this video from TikTok, which explains two simple models for the spread of COVID-19. Data literally comes to life right in front of you through augmented reality via your device, and you can physically walk and interact with it. The result is an engaging and engaging way to understand an otherwise dry and scholarly subject.

Screengrab from an augmented reality demonstration of superspreading events that contribute to an R-value of 2 for a virus. Credits: Michael DiBenigno (@the.data.guy), 2020. “Thank you @epidemiologistkat for continuing to communicate research-driven insights… I just help visualize them and share a story. #datastory #AR”. TikTok November 4, 2020, https://tiktok.com/@the.data.guy/video/6891058199525444869

With a little creativity, almost anything – emotions, feelings, or even other mundane topics – can be presented in beautiful visualizations. In 2015, two information designers Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec embarked on a data drawing project that presented their everyday stories through data in postcards. The year-long project saw the two designers describe their lives — even mundane details like how many times they laugh in a week — to each other on postcards sent weekly. Postcards are a kaleidoscope of colors and patterns that could be an art form in themselves. They have also released a book of the same title documenting their project.

A week of laughter visualized and how to create or read it. Credits: Lupi, Georgia, and Posavec, Stefanie. 2017. “The Project”. Dear Date. Accessed November 10, 2022. http://www.deardata.com/theproject

At Hedonometer.org, researchers aim to characterize an index of happiness over a period of time. This is done using text mining from Twitter and crowdsourced sentiment analysis. Changes in happiness are also measured by looking at how often positive or negative words are used. The daily index is marked with significant incidents, so you can guess the state of happiness on special occasions and compare it with other days. Visually, this presents the pulse of the global state of happiness over time.

Hedonometric graph of average happiness for Twitter in 2020. Credits: Computational Story Lab. “The Hedonometer.” Hedonometer. 2022. https://www.hedonometer.org/.

This approach can also be applied to book or movie scripts, giving us an interesting insight into the emotional ups and downs as readers or viewers progress through a story. Such a complex story the Miserables by Victor Hugo is understandably quite emotionally chaotic, while children’s films and animation tend to be less emotionally turbulent.

Hedonometric graph of happiness within the Miserables (left) and Wall-E (right) to the full length of the respective book/screenplay. Credit: Computational Story Lab. “Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.” Hedonometer. 2022. Computational Histories Lab. “Wall E.” Hedonometer. 2022.

Almost everything can be viewed as data. A little creativity is all it takes to imagine and visualize data in an interesting way, while technology makes that visualization a reality through the use of the latest software. This New Atlas article provides some examples of interesting applications when we transform data (such as air traffic, wind patterns, photographs, movie scenes, even time travel patterns from movies) into beautiful works of art .

“Air traffic routes over North America displayed in color and shape”. Credit: Aaron Koblin. “Flight Patterns” accessed May 11, 2022

I first encountered the beauty of data in 2006. Artist and computer scientist Jonathan Harris and partner Sep Kamvar had produced “We Feel Fine”, a website that managed to beautifully and creatively capture a glimpse of the world through the use of digital data. For example, tweets were displayed as circles or squares colored according to the emotions mentioned, forming a swirling rainbow of particles that can be filtered and explored, resulting in a world of textual data. The particles themselves can be organized into shared sentiment files, sorted by the length of each tweet.

Messages organized into movements called “Madness” and “Mob”. Credit: Jonathan Harris and September Kamvar. “Movements”. We Feel Fine, accessed November 17, 2022

Harris presented this work at a TED conference in 2007, after which it influenced some of the projects mentioned here.

Credit: Jonathan Harris. “The Secret Stories of the Web”. Also available on TED, March 2007

Data visualization has become even more important as data sets become even larger and more complex. Thanks to the proliferation of microchips everywhere, modern societies have the ability to collect vast seas of data on virtually everything. As a result, making all of this data understandable has become a much more difficult task.

In April 2022, I shared big data and its relevance in A Librarian’s World, the National Library’s lecture series hosted by librarians. You can also find more interesting examples of data visualizations on the Information is Beautiful website. With the right understanding and a touch of inspiration, you too can produce your own creative visualization of data, revealing a hidden story in the ever-growing world of data.

Further reading:
Adam Frost, Communicating with Data Visualization: A Practical Guide. (London: SAGE Publications, 2022). (Call 001.4226 FRO)

Chip Heath and Karla Starr, Making Numbers Count: The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers. (Avid Reader Press, 2022). (Call 001.4226 HEA). Also available in eBook format.

David McCandless, Good news. (London: William Collins, 2021). (Call 031.0222 MAC). Also available in eBook format.

David McCandless. “Information is beautiful.” The information is nice, last revised April 21, 2022.

Dick Murray, Infographics: A history of data graphics in news and communications. (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2020). (Call 001.4226 DEC). Also available in eBook format.

Kevin Seet is a librarian of the National Library, Singapore, where he oversees the Business, Science and Technology collections. His interests lie in the overlaps between science, technology and society. In addition to collections management, his responsibilities also include content development and the provision of reference and research services.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *