Visualising Data Narratives

Guardian Narrative Data Visualization
Example of narrative data visualization from The Guardian

To say that we are living in The Information Age and that we suffer from information overload has become something of a truism. However, it is true to say that for many of us there is a growing requirement that we make sense and use of complex data. This is partly due to advances in personal and mobile computing power, allied to faster broadband speeds, which mean we are collecting, processing and distributing datasets that are far larger than was previously practical. In addition, there are also new factors such as social networking, social media, the successes of the open data movement and the growth of companies such as Google whose whole business is data. Furthermore, these trends look like they will only continue as personal health monitors, smart energy meters and such like come into common use.

One response to this has been the growth in data journalism in which interactive data visualization techniques are incorporated into the story telling process. These narrative visualizations offer the reader the opportunity to gain insight into the story’s subject through guided exploration of the data, which may be enhanced by enabling the reader to personalise the data to varying degrees, thus making the story more relevant to their own perspective. Many excellent examples of this can be found on the websites of The Guardian and New York Times newspapers. Another response has been the idea of social data analysis using online resources such as ManyEyes, where data is visualised publicly and the resulting insights discussed and shared.

Such developments point to ways in which people can engage with complex data in a creative manner and make positive use of it. They also highlight the influence of the different perspectives that groups or individuals may bring to the original data and how their points of view and expertise can be shared productively. This shows that the purpose of visualising data is not simply to provide an accurate representation of it, but also to act as a platform for argument and discussion, for storytelling and scenario testing. This is creative analysis in which individual narratives can be constructed and compared, and it is likely to play an increasingly important role in making important decisions.

Take for instance the process of designing and launching a new car. This is not simply a matter of engineering improvements in aerodynamics and power to weight ratio followed by a clever advertising campaign, important though these are. It also involves appreciating trends in taxation and petrol prices or the availability of electricity charging points; understanding population migration patterns between country, city and suburbs; tracking changes in family size, demographics and the number of cars per family; and following social attitudes to factors such as safety and status. This is all before the arguably more subjective and emotive elements of styling come into play, reactions to which are also collected, collated and visualised. Each of these is a data story that represents the perspective of one or more domain expert and the success of the project is likely to depend on how well they can be combined.

My work as a PhD research student in the Centre for Creativity in Professional Practice involves developing and studying tools that will help support people as they construct and share data stories that reflect their personal or professional perspective. The aim here is not to promote a situation where all decisions are made by compromise or committee, but to give people the tools with which they can effectively argue their point of view and also to better take on board the implications of issues raised by experts from other domains. This, I hope, will eventually lead to better, more informed decisions and a more effective design process for both products and services.


Creativity on a Shoestring

Ever wondered how to do more for less? Most of us have. Indeed, in the current economic climate, you cannot just throw resources at problems. Smarter is the new smart. And many commentators have argued that creativity is key to being smarter.

However, these same commentators often ignore that creativity is not free. Indeed, many reported creative processes and techniques themselves consume resources – resources that organizations just don’t have. This poses a challenge – how to be creative with less. We need creativity on a shoestring.

I’ve been working with City graduate Bianca Hollis of BBC worldwide to design and evaluate creativity on a shoestring. Bianca is a user experience designer developing digital products such as web sites and software apps. Like many working in digital media, she uses agile methods to design these products. Agile methods encourage the iterative development of working software, often in two-week cycles. This leaves little time for creative thinking – who really wants to think divergently when the next software release is expected in 10 working days?

So our challenge was to fit creativity techniques into agile in creativity workshops that rarely last more than 45 minutes in agile projects at BBC Worldwide. We gave stakeholders techniques such as hall of fame, constraint removal and back to the future to generate ideas for new BBC products. Moreover, I think that we succeeded. The workshops generated lots of ideas that were rated significantly more novel than existing ideas in the project backlog.

We were sufficiently excited by these successes to take the shoestring creativity techniques on the road. This week we ran a tutorial at OOP2012 in Munich, teaching quick creativity techniques to agile software developers. The techniques were a success. People’s reactions revealed that we’ve hit a nerve. Creativity on a shoestring is needed more than ever.

So let’s be smart. Create more from less.

A New Renaissance for Creative Design?

[tweetmeme]I recently went to the excellent exhibition of Italian Renaissance drawings at the British Museum.
Verrocchio's Head of a Woman

The drawings were, of course, amazing, and included works such as the Head of a Woman by Verrocchio, and Leonardo’s first landscape (1473). But what has stayed with me, as well as the memory of the drawings themselves, is a couple of thoughts the exhibition triggered about today’s world of design and technical innovation.

So, the main source of material for new works of art before the Renaissance period were ‘model books’ – collections of images and compositions from which artists copied and used ideas and representations they liked. During the Renaissance, artists began to take their inspiration and draw more directly from nature, leading to a more naturalistic style, and more freedom for creative expression. This was in part due to the increasing availability of paper – much cheaper than vellum – on which drawings could be made.

My favourite section of the exhibition was dedicated to explaining the impact on artistic practice of the new tools (such as paper) and techniques for drawing that were developing at the time of the Renaissance. For example, how the use of pen and ink for sketching was increasingly favoured for its responsiveness and expressive capabilities, how techniques for drawing using silverpoint – that couldn’t be erased – compared with those for drawing with lead – that could be rubbed out and changed, and how the development of print-making techniques enabled designs to be mechanically replicated and shared with larger numbers of people for the first time. The exhibition shows how developments of this kind in drawing laid the foundation for a new world of art.

It struck me that current developments in interactive tools and technologies offer the potential to deliver a similar revolution in today’s world of creative design. Interactive technologies are more pervasive and available to us all than ever before – they are in our buildings, on our desks and in our pockets. We can share digital artefacts as never before, and the possibilities of gestural interaction offered by devices such as the Wii and iPad offer huge potential for flexible and fluid interaction. How are such developments in new technologies laying the foundation for a new world of creative design?

This is a question I’m looking forward to exploring in my course on Technologies for Creativity and Innovation as part of our new Masters in Innovation, Creativity and Leadership. In the meantime, I’ll be happy to share more experiences, and hear yours too.

Creative meetings using web conferencing?

[tweetmeme]Web conferencing has been “the next big thing” for a while now, and with everyone worrying about their carbon footprint, it should be more relevant than ever, right? Then why do I regularly find myself on the road, train, or plane, heading for a meeting with stakeholders which could in theory have been done using tools like Skype, or even just a conference call?  Well, it works in theory, but I’ve yet to find a web conferencing tool that can do it in practice. Why is that?

This week’s seminar speaker, Mick Angel, gave me some food for thought with his presentation on Web Conferencing and Creativity. One of his case studies for his research was Google, who have virtual meetings as a default between their widely spread offices.  So if Google can make web conferencing work, why can’t everyone make it work? What is it that Google does, that makes them good at web conferencing? It can’t just be the technology – HP spent millions on high-tech conference suites (HP Halo) at $500 000 a pop with dedicated communication lines, HD screens, HD video feed and document sharing (so HD in fact that recording it would create data files of terabyte sizes) etc, etc. But even HP admits that it’s not ideal, and it’s not just because of the price-tag. The setup is too businessy and does not allow participants to collaborate easily on artifacts. So if having the flashiest, most expensive technology available doesn’t solve the problems, what does?

Maybe the problem is a cultural one. At Google, the organizational culture actively promotes and expects web conferencing to work. There are unspoken, but seemingly well understood “rules of engagement”. They also have a shared internal language that helps simplify the collaboration on documents, IM and in web conferencing. And as Mick pointed out: “if the only time your boss can assess you is when you speak up in conference calls, then those who want to succeed will seek to actively participate” – thus alleviating one of my big issues with web conferencing – the passive, quiet person who listens, but doesn’t contribute.

Would web conferencing work for us, if we had a shared language, expectations and agreed “rules of engagement” with the people we work with? Could we ever agree on it? It’s possible within a single company, but across organizations? Maybe the development of multi-user online collaboration tools (rather than single user tools – like Word – adapted to support editing by multiple users) will make it easier? Or maybe Google should start running training courses? One thing is for sure, until I figure out how to have a successful creative meeting over the web, I will probably stick with face-to-face for creative meetings. Call me old-fashioned, but I know it works, and I know how it works.

What do you think? Does web conferencing work for you? I’d be interested in hearing when it does and when it doesn’t. What’s the plusses and the negatives?

Author: Kristine Pitts

Picture the Music

Picture the Music - What can different types of music make you imagine?[tweetmeme]about a week ago we had a very interesting meeting with the creators of Picture the Music who gave us a demo. In their words: “Picture the Music Create is a multi sensory teaching tool that motivates and inspires creativity”. The method and supporting tool is currently used primarily with children and teachers in schools, and seeks to get children to be creative.

Having experienced a taster of what the method offers, it’s not hard to see why children would enjoy it and get inspired. Personally, I found it enlightening. I know music changes the mood of things, just think of the music in horror movies or any movie really, but sometimes it takes someone else to point out the obvious before you realise the power of it.

I was amazed by how different types of music created different stories in my head, even though the image I was looking at and the situation around me stayed the same.

While the method and tool is presently aimed at children, it may be useful in higher education and/or in business – with some adaptation. In fact, my colleague Clive and I was so inspired that we’re hoping to get them to run a workshop here at the university with academic staff.

How well it will be received remains to be seen. At the very least it should be a playful escape from the daily grind and a chance for staff to explore their imagination. And maybe we can see a use for it for our students. Who knows? I’m excited to find out – so watch this space.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge” – Albert Einstein.  – Could your colleagues do with exploring their creative side?

Author: Kristine Pitts