David McCandless has the rare ability to make sense out of our world with words and images. As a data journalist and information designer with a killer sense of humor (“My pet-hate is pie charts. Love pie. Hate pie-charts”), his talk at Social Commerce Summit Europe was a hit. We wanted more, so we put the following interview together. Enjoy!

As the visualization of data becomes easier, how does communication of that data change?

In a connected world, unconnected absolute figures don’t give a complete picture. Only relative numbers, in context with other data, make any sense. They show us a truer picture. So data visualized in relationship to other data helps us see better. As Hans Rosling brilliantly puts it: let the dataset change your mindset.

Visualisation can open up areas of knowledge to people who would not normally be interested in those areas. Images are nice to look at. Beautiful visual displays are appealing to everyone. So beautiful information display can act as ‘trojan horses’ to introduce new ideas or thoughts to new audiences.

What’s the biggest single impact one of your visuals has had on the world?

Oh blimey. I have no way of knowing. I know that over a million people looked at my radiation chart. That might have had some effect.

What’s the most startling revelation you’ve arrived at by visualizing data? 

The state of fish stocks for ‘Plenty More Fish in the Sea?’. When I visualized it, the results were shocking.

Because you have to look at all the data, all the angles, all the perspective – the whole picture – when you’re visualizing, you often see aspects and issues that you weren’t aware of. Either because you didn’t know or because you didn’t want to know. You were ignoring them. So visualizing can make you more aware.

We’re seeing that even things like dating can be data-driven; is there anything that the right use of the right data will never be able to do?

I think there are types of qualitative data: opinions, emotions, concepts, worldviews – that are so fluid or intangible or subtle, that maybe can’t be coalesced into data.

How can we guide our decisions with data, but still leave room for the serendipity and randomness that make life interesting?  

I think combinations might be healthier. Data-driven decisions combined with gut feelings and intuition.

An entirely data-driven life would be pretty freaky.

How is social data different than the other types of data you’ve worked with?

It’s more alive. More dynamic. More interesting.

How can structure add value to data for businesses?

Structuring data visually, turning information into images, helps us better see and understand the connections, patterns and relationships between ideas, facts, ideas, statistics.

You can spot otherwise hidden patterns. Get instant ‘satellite views’ of subjects. And get some context for all this information flying around. If you go one step further, you can design that visualised information so that it tells a story, or zooms in on only what is important or interesting.

That ability to ‘see’ structured data in different ways and engage it with different enquiries, explore patterns and relationships has got to be good for business insight.

If you’d like to view David’s excellent full presentation, you can watch it here

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