Data visualisation and infographics Mapping the information jungle

Screenshot from Europa-Atlas (map view)
Screenshot from Europa-Atlas (map view) | detail with friendly permission of SZ.de

How can design be used to enhance the people’s understanding of an entire country, the European Union or the respective legislation? Projects such as Europa-Atlas of the German national newspaper “Süddeutsche Zeitung”, the publication “Deutschland verstehen” (Understanding Germany) of Gestalten Verlag or the web platform “LobbyPlag” are working on the visualisation of huge amounts of information and complex matters.

Visualising extensive raw data is not really new: weather forecasts, news on stocks and shares or cartography are just a few classic, common examples, but these were mostly prepared by specialists for a very specific purpose. Current forms of data visualisation and infographics now promise a critical-journalistic access to today’s immense quantities of data and usually come with strategically placed design media.

Minimalistic mountain of data

The Europa-Atlas of the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) for instance, draws on the huge amount of raw data from Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union. In the Europa-Atlas project one is not aware of this “mountain of data“: quick access to information is provided via a well laid out, minimalistic interface. Here it is easy to compare perhaps the youth unemployment rate in Germany with that of France and Poland. Design is used to ensure functionality. At the SZ the interactive infographics communicate with the report. “We accompany (...) each of these new formats with stories that explain the relationship, and now in the Europa-Atlas we have an entire series of articles”, comments Stefan Plöchinger, Editor in Chief at sz.de. In the print crisis, where there is a battle for every reader, these forms of interactive data visualisation offer a way to connect up with web readers who like to permanently click through to the next “like” button. They therefore also represent a survival strategy.

From the design workshop: Notes on a first design of the Europa-Atlas for the programmer, using Post-it on a screen; From the design workshop: Notes on a first design of the Europa-Atlas for the programmer, using Post-it on a screen; | Photo: SZ.de

Activity book for adults

A slightly different approach is taken in the “Lese- Lern- und Anschaubuch” (Read, Learn and Look book) – the subtitle in the publication Deutschland verstehen of Gestalten Verlag. This 240-page book in Atlas format weighs almost 2 kilos and can be seen as a slowed-down counterpart to a format such as the Europa-Atlas. It also opens up more creative freedom. This is because online, a certain user friendliness and clarity is essential, whereas in this case it is expected that the reader spends time looking at and rereading the book. It was also for this reason that the co-editor Ralf Greuel named Deutschland verstehen an “Activity book for adults”. Various facets of culture, business, history and life in Germany are interlinked by means of infographics. This is often done in a critical reflective manner, or also humorously. For people with an historical interest, for example, there is more to discover than just visual details of the freight composition and flying frequency of “candy bombers”. Serious topics are also visualised and explained, such as the development of the concentration camp in Auschwitz. There is a good coverage of football, a comparison of the most expensive German artists in the art market, and even information on what Germans (and Bavarians) think about the rest of the world.

The material comes from different sources and is carefully selected by the editors – like curators who put together the most interesting correlations from many publications. Whereas the challenge in the Europa-Atlas project of the SZ is to present this mountain of data in a visually appealing, interactive form, a print publication such as Deutschland verstehen combines different, already existing data analyses in a new and enhanced form at a meta-level.

“The world from a German perspective” from Deutschland Verstehen “The world from a German perspective” from Deutschland Verstehen | Graphics: Frank Höhne © Gestalten 2013

Design promotes activism

Then again, in the online projects of OpenDataCity, visualisations are used as a means to an end: they often disclose and combat misdoings. The app “GEMA versus YouTube“ – indicating that over 60 per cent of the most popular 1,000 YouTube videos are currently barred (in Germany) by GEMA – launched a debate on the sense and purpose of this practice. The platform “LobbyPlag“, where it is possible to compare amendments, filed by EU members of parliament on the general data protection regulation, with text proposals from lobbyists, revealed the strong influence of lobbyists on EU legislation. This clearly showed that EU members of parliament often adopted proposals from sector representatives on a one to one basis in their amendments. The disclosure of this dubious practice on “LobbyPlag” created a big media response and curbed the lobbyists’ version of the EU data protection directive. We will have to wait and see whether this successful step can be followed up, nevertheless a basic tool is now definitely in place with „LobbyPlag“.

Visualised data – here and in the above examples – do require careful contextualisation, but when used properly they facilitate access to extensive and complex quantities of data if the data is captured and analysed in a comprehensible fashion. In the ideal case this produces a combination of information and aesthetics.