Giulio Fagiolini

Impressions from Visualized conference 2015

On the 8th and 9th of October,  Visualized took place in New York. Visualized is an annual meet-up that brings together the world’s most creative minds in the field of data visualisation. With 35 speakers coming from all around the world to share their points of view, I was most impressed by the diversity of the speakers. Each piece of work presented a different approach and was able to standalone, contribute to the discussion, and show how the medium of data can be interpreted, represented and used in different ways.

The conference describes itself as a place for discussion for minds that are changing the way we work with data. Many topics and trends surfaced during the conference, but three words in particular resonate when I think about the breadth and ambition of the conference: understand, communicate and interact. Through these words, I’ll try to retrace the talks that inspired me the most.

One of the things that make a piece of work relevant is the methodology used by the author to collect, process and query the data. Before communicating the data we need to understand it and understand the framework in which the data lives. A particularly interesting approach to this topic was presented by Ian Ardouin-Fumat and Genevieve Hoffman, senior researchers at The Office for Creative Research. Using the concept of swimming upstream, their talk focused on the changes happening in the field, which has gone from “simply crafting ways to visualise data in the service of storytelling, to also crafting ways of collecting, processing and querying that data”. In the apparently endless flow of data we live in today, we need to return upstream and start focusing our attention on the part of the process that often remains outside of our reach.

On a similar note, the presentation by Luca Masud and Mahir Yavuz focused on the role of the designer and the mutating structure of the integrated design team. Guided by the experience acquired in a data visualisation team of 15 people in R/GA, they shared insights on the evolving context around data visualisation. And guess what? Data Visualisation is not enough. The number of disciplines and professions that play a role in the data visualisation framework is growing and having only one data expert is not sufficient. The entire team should be fluent with data because in our projects the “data is the brief.”

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Another theme of the conference is the way we communicate data. What does communicating data mean? One of my most important takeaways is that there are infinite ways to communicate data effectively. We have countless ways of exploring our relationship with the user and using numbers is often the least expressive way. As Stephanie Posavec and Giorgia Lupi stated ”numbers are always a placeholder for something else.”

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During their talk they stressed how we should try to think about data visualisation as a design driven process (converting the usual theorem of data driven design). They presented the outcome of their year-long, analogue data-drawing project: DearData. On a weekly basis each of the authors selected an aspect of their daily lives, encoded the information in a hand-drawn visualization on the back of a postcard and then mailed it to the other. The result is a collection of visual postcards that represent the myriad of ways of bringing data to life, to create a personal and unique dimension where the beauty of each of the works stays in the power of both the small data and the visual experimentation.

Domestic Data Streamers gave a particularly interesting speech on the research of new languages to express data. “How do we make people feel?” asked the two authors to the public. As designers they’ve been mainly focusing on the possibility of impacting people’s lives through interactive pieces that connect to the user through physical experiences. With various examples of their work they showed us how allowing a physical connection to the data empowers the user and helps them move the narrative from a monologue to a dialogue.

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The last framework through which I want to briefly analyse the conference is the framework of interaction with the data. As we saw, many of the talks focused on the endless possibilities of data. On the other hand, we also need to reflect on the limitations of a world seen only through the lens of data. How often is data being collected excessively, stored insecurely, presented with bias and interpreted within the wrong context?

It was very interesting hearing the thoughts of Matthew Falla and Moritz Stefaner, who both focused their talks on the problems that an indiscriminate use of data could lead to. With data holding so much power over our lives, questions around privacy, ownership and control are more important than ever.

Visualized was a really insightful experience which, until the next conference, will definitely be a true source of inspiration on how to understand, communicate and interact with data.

(If you want a complete overview of the speakers who presented at Visualized have a look at their website. In a few months the Visualized team will publish the videos of the talks!)

Giulio Fagiolini

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