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Information Design: Let the Dataset Change the Mindset

I was born and raised in California, but there has never been a time when I haven’t felt, in the deepest part of the very core of my being, that I was made for New York City. When the stars aligned and life finally permitted a visit, everything between touching down at LaGuardia and my last evening in Midtown was exactly how I always dreamed it would be: like coming home.

So maybe you can imagine the mixture of joy, pressure, and sheer anxiety I felt after being asked to write an article about two Con Edison employees, and how they used information design to help rebuild Manhattan after September 11th.

“Find the story, Chelsi,” urged my team. Find the story.

So here we go.

Manhattan, I Love You

Lisa Frigand had already been a Special Projects Manager at Con Edison (New York City’s gas, electric and steam provider) for 23 years when the World Trade Center was attacked, but a rebuild of that scale was an extra-tremendous undertaking — especially with the number of groups, teams and individuals involved.

After a chat with another Con Edison employee, Systems Specialist David Hill, it was decided that a mind map was in order. The two worked to gather the necessary information from all participants, and plugged it into a map. The result was a visual directory that listed everyone involved in the effort and detailed their connection to it. In other words, it was a picture of the bigger picture:

The map essentially made a colossal amount of information easy to digest at a very critical moment in time, and was instrumental in the city’s reparations — an accomplishment that has since been anything but overlooked. In October 2011, The Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired Frigand and Hill’s map, and sent a note that read, “We all felt that the work was of such important historical interest that we should include it in the MoMA Study Collection.”

Information, You Are Beautiful

Getting lost in information is easier with each passing day, so yeah, maps make a lot of sense. They compress data, relieve feelings of information overload, and are fun to look at. But why stop there?

Below is a visualization of the political spectrum. It was created by journalist David McCandless in an attempt to better understand how ideas trickle down from government into society, culture, belief systems, families and individuals, and back around again in a cycle. The actual outcome, however, was something much more valuable.

McCandless admitted that when he was creating this diagram, he desperately wanted the left side to be better than the right side, but in order to be fair he had to honor both perspectives equally. This process caused him to “uncomfortably recognize” how many of those right-side qualities he actually held in himself.

“What I love about this image is…it explores our worldviews and it helps us — it helps me anyway — to see what others think, to see where they’re coming from,” he said in a recent Ted Talk. “There’s something unthreatening about seeing a political perspective versus being told or forced to listen to one. You’re capable of holding conflicting viewpoints joyously when you can see them…So that’s what’s exciting to me; seeing how data can change my perspective and change my mind midstream — beautiful, lovely data.”

A Real Human Being…

Even further down the rabbit hole we find Aaron Koblin, a digital media artist who uses collections of this beautiful, lovely data to reflect on cultural trends and the changing relationship between people and technology. In other words, he visualizes our humanity.

For example, the photo below is a still of a project called Flight Patterns. The actual animation color codes and visualizes airplane traffic over North America for a 24-hour period. You’ll see everything start to fade to black as people are going to sleep, followed by red-eye flights and then an increase in activity as people start to wake up again:

“Recently, a wise media theorist Tweeted, ‘The 19th century culture was defined by the novel, the 20th century culture was defined by the cinema, and the culture of the 21st century will be defined by the interface,’ And I believe this is going to prove true,” said Koblin. “Our lives are being driven by data, and the presentation of that data is an opportunity for us to make some amazing interfaces that tell great stories.”

…and a Real Hero (<-high five if you get this reference)

Much like Frigand and Hill’s map of Manhattan, my attempt to tell its story grew into something much bigger. You can’t blame me — this is just something that happens when I’m told to write about things of ultimate influence (New York and data). As statistician Hans Rosling puts it, “Let the dataset change your mindset.”

Here’s the story: what I think we’re learning — or perhaps relearning — at this time and place in our lives is that there’s more to visualization than meets the eye (ha). If information design can help us recover from painful disasters, lessen our biases and even humanize us, then don’t we owe it to ourselves to do what we can to make sense of our own collective genius?

The explosion of information is absolutely, without a doubt, going to continue. And the more data we collect because of it, the bigger our moral obligation to save ourselves from it will become. This is an opportunity to be our own heroes, and with information design, what a beautiful reality that is.

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