Hans Rosling has been justly acclaimed for a couple of TED talks on global health in which he makes mesmerizing use of his (and now Google’s) GapMinder software, which he uses to tell compelling stories with data. The software is very cool, but what really makes the stories come to life is Rosling’s narrative. Data analysis, for him, is a performance art.
I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been trying to investigate a perceived crime wave in my home town. You’d think it would be straightforward to get hold of the data but, after four months, I’m still trying. Meanwhile, however, I found some historical data at the Bureau of Justice, and I decided to see what I could make of that.
The visualizations shown in today’s screencast were done with Many Eyes, which is another very cool piece of software. But what I realized while making them is that narrated animation is really the secret sauce. Analytical software, whether it’s Excel or GapMinder or Many Eyes or something else, is necessary but not sufficient. The stories that people will understand, and remember, are the ones that have been performed well.
Now I’m no Hans Rosling, and you certainly won’t see me swallow a sword at the end of this screencast — as he amazingly does at the end of this video. But I will be trying to emulate his example when I tell stories with data. And I’m struck, once again, by the way in which screencasting can bring software interaction to life.
The charts used in my screencast could have been made in Excel or in any other charting package. By making them in Many Eyes, I added the important new dimension of social analysis. So you can visit the data sets there, comment on the visualizations, and add your own visualizations. But data analysis as performance art goes beyond the snapshots produced by analytical tools. It lives in the interstitial spaces between the snapshots, traces a narrative arc, shows as it tells.