Show and Tell

June 23, 2016   |   Craig Strydom

Using data visualizations for the greater good.

An extension of the company brochure.

That’s how businesses saw the Internet in the mid-nineties. Unresponsive. Bad graphics. Static. Not exactly what the customer ordered.

But consumers wanted more. Early users of the Internet were hungry for information, communication, and most of all interaction—all at a keystroke. Hence the word ‘interactive’ to describe the early promise of the Internet. 

But in those early days of Ask Jeeves and ‘Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web’ (later renamed Yahoo!), true interactivity was a long way off. Customers had to wait patiently for faster internet speeds, improved movie players, and video streaming before video finally made an appearance.

Data visualizations, too, had to wait their turn. It was only with the advent of rich media software like Adobe Flash and HTML5, that true interactivity in the form of interactive data visualizations would come into being.

(Data visualizations are a way to help people understand data by placing it in a visual context. Or, in the words of data journalist David McCandless, ‘By visualizing information, we turn it into a landscape that you can explore with your eyes, a sort of information map.’)

But here is where it gets interesting. Behavioral scientists will tell you that reading is a creative process (we recreate the visual story in our heads) and that video is a passive one (we wait inactively for the story to unfold). Interactive data visualization, on the other hand, is truly ‘interactive’ in that it puts the user in the driver’s seat – allowing them to be the ‘pilot’ of the unfolding visual story. A grown up form of ‘show and tell, one might say.’

Case in point, who can forget the recent pinnacle of interactive data visualizations (The Dawn Wall: El Capitan’s Most Unwelcoming Route, Jan 9, 2015), that told the story, through 3-D data visualization of how two climbers made history by successfully completing a 19-day free climb of the dangerous Dawn Wall on El Capitan? 

By the simple act of scrolling up or down, the user was able to, in all its 3-dimensional glory, get a taste of the vertigo for themselves. 

By the end of 2015, and in spite of a few early clunky attempts, it seemed the interactive data visualization tool had arrived. 

A is for alphabet, T is for transparency.

The Google Transparency Project, which Blue Water designed and developed in conjunction with the Campaign for Accountability, gives the humble interactive data visualization tool a whole new purpose.

As a research initiative of the Campaign for Accountability, (a project that uses research, litigation, and aggressive communications to expose how decisions made behind the doors of corporate boardrooms and government offices can impact American lives), the ‘Google Transparency Project’ is notable in how, in this case, it exists for the sole purpose of transparency.

Unlike ‘hactivism,’ a concept that came to the fore in 2012, The Google Transparency project actually makes sense of the data it puts out, in a user-friendly way, rather than simply dumping the information into the ‘webiverse.’ 

Case in point, the Blue Water-designed and developed ‘Google’s Revolving Door (US),’ a colorful and user-friendly interactive chart (schema ball) that allows the user to explore each of the 61 moves from Google (and related firms) to Government, and each of the 197 moves from Government to Google (and related firms), by name and date, thereby—in the words of CFA itself— ‘highlighting the least-examined examples of corporate influence in government today.’ 

Data Visualization Revolving Door

When asked about the rationale behind the visualization, Dr. Jason Lee, Blue Water’s director of User Experience explains that, ‘Not only did we go with the circular concept to get across the idea of a revolving door between Google and the government, but also we wanted to allow users to drill down and see the relationships at a more granular level, by department and by person’.

The success of ‘Google’s Revolving Door (US)’ campaign, as well as ‘Google White House Visits,’ a similar interactive chart, has now led to the project being extended to ‘Google’s Revolving Door (Europe).

Data Visualization of Meetings

All of which begs the question. Is it an educational tool? Or a transparency tool? Whatever the answer, one can safely say that the interactive data visualization tool is here for good—the greater good.