Visualization for social good

March 24, 2015       The NonProfit Times      

Dr. John Snow mapped the cases of cholera in London’s Soho neighborhood in 1854, thereby tracing the source of the outbreak, and inspiring reform in water and waste management in London and beyond. Deemed the “father of modern epidemiology,” Snow saved countless lives through his data visualization.

More than a century and a half later, data visualization’s surging popularity can be seen in the countless free and paid tools and services to create your own visuals, new academic programs, and high number of jobs in this particular field.

“The popularity has to do with the incredible access we have to data, and the spirit of data transfer,” explained Aaron Hill, assistant professor and director of the Data Visualization Masters program at Parsons The New School for Design in New York City. “Before, you needed to use the Freedom of Information Act to get data, and now you can get anything.”

During the final day of SXSW Interactive, Hill led the workshop, Data Visualization for Social Good, with a packed group of attendees. Hill shared his three principles for visual representation.

Principle 1: Graph Grammar

Think about how points, lines, and shapes can best represent the data. Hill cited the “graph grammar” work of statistician, Hadley Wickham, and emphasized the importance of consistency in the how data is described.

Principle 2: Layering and Separation Techniques

It’s important to emphasize the layers that directly map to data. Hill shared an image of an airport diagram map and urged attendees to think about the data points that in reality actually matter to pilots: location of the runway, and areas on the runway that have historically been prone to accidents. One version of the map that included water was

Principle 3: Graphical Perception

It’s critical for data to be presented in a way that supports accurate interpretations. Hill shared an image that compared the same data in a pie chart versus a bar chart, and explained how data presented in circle can be hard to convey precise information, especially without the baseline that a bar graph provides.

The complete set of slides from the presentation can be viewed through the link: — — Joleen Ong