Early in December, I wrote a blog about big data in the abstract. I had just been to a workshop on the topic, which defined big data as datasets that are uncomfortably large for a single machine to process into information. In my blog, I wondered whether actually big data should be defined as datasets that are uncomfortably large for a single human to conceive of and then to trust when they are processed into information.

Now, I have just returned from another workshop where we were taught one way we can make people more comfortable with the information we may derive from our big data research: by presenting it visually in a compelling, creative and coherent manner. A picture is worth a thousand words. Or an infographic should be.

Again, we started the workshop with a definition. Infographics “are graphic, visual representations of information, data or knowledge intended to present information quickly and clearly,” says Wikipedia. Infographics can help explain things, especially patterns, trends or changes over time or within complex systems or geographies. Ideally, they should represent ideas, facts and statistics without distorting them. They should teach, warn, and persuade whoever is the target audience.

They are not new. They can be found in 19th century policy documents, early social science textbooks, every publication of census information for general consumption. More recently, as websites seek to increase content to increase clicks, infographics have proliferated. Their quality has not kept pace with their quantity, although great examples can be found with a little digging. Many at the workshop shared a few favourites, and in the past I have tweeted ones that stir my imagination when I have come across them.

Still, as we turned to more practical exercises at the workshop, we soon learned why there are so many terrible infographics out there. Because whilst a picture may be worth a thousand words, it takes at least as long if not longer to create said picture than to write the thousand words. So it would appear that such an investment of time (and skill, and having decent tools) is not granted to the majority of infographics in circulation today. Thus they are not worth 100 words, never mind 1,000.

Time is also needed to practice and build skills in this area, and the workshop gave me a greater appreciation for the professionals out there, including my brother. Although a novice can quickly grasp the basics of graphic design tools, mastery takes years. On the other hand, with professionals on hand to help, our group of PhD students were able to produce some pretty neat infographics in one long day that did actually convey scientific information.

Which brings us back to comfort. Various audiences struggle to be comfortable with the outcomes of big data analysis, especially if it is scientific. Climate change and other global environmental issues are key examples, as some of our workshop groups grappled with. But if this discomfort and mistrust can be overcome, fantastic infographics are a likely way to do it, because a good picture is something we all can understand, no matter our age, education or the language we speak.

I felt more comfortable trying to create something in the visual language of graphics at this workshop than in a computer programming language at the previous workshop, so I hope that my comfort will be transferred to my audience as I start trying to illustrate my own research. Once I have the information I want to illustrate, of course!

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