Infographics are like fast-food

Moritz Stefaner gave a talk on unconventional methods of data visualization at CHI Belgium’s first event in their series, “Hangouts with interesting people”. He illustrates his perspective via projects like Emoto that transformed social media responses from the 2012 London Olympics into visual graphs and data sculptures, and Data Cuisine, where data was presented as food. Stefaner considers data visualization a platform for learning and exploration, comparable to journalism, and believes it can take many forms, including sculptures, sound, haptics, or food.

Last Wednesday, the nice people at CHI Belgium organised their first episode in the series “Hangouts with interesting people”, with the main speaker being Moritz Stefaner. I was really excited to see his presentation, as I missed his talk at Resonate, and he did not disappoint.

The title of his talk was “Beyond the bar chart: data visualization off the beaten track”. He showed us his recent work, as well as a more general discussion of data visualization and the trends surrounding it.

In case you missed it, the talk is available on YouTube.

Now let me highlight two of my favorite projects. First of all, he talked about the emoto project in which they visualized the social media response around the London 2012 Olympics. They analyzed tweets and categorized them based on positive and negative emotions and visualized them into graphs.

Then they also CNC-milled these graphs into a data sculpture, on which through light projections specific events could be highlighted.

The second really interesting project he mentioned was Data Cuisine. In this research project, he and his colleagues organized workshops in which they visualized data through food. One example was a map of alcohol consumption across Finland, where the glasses were filled to symbolize the consumption levels.

Image of drinking glasses filled with alcohol, arranged in the shape of Finland.

What I learned:

  • According to Moritz, infographics are like fast-food. They are quick, bite-size snacks, but they lack the depth of a slow-cooked, well-prepared meal. They are loud and messy, and you don’t learn a lot from them. For him, data visualization is the opposite. Instead of offering pre-digested stuff, they offer you the possibility of learning through playful exploration of the data.
  • Data visualization is similar to journalism. There is always a form of authorship involved when you are giving shape to abstract words and numbers. You should always evaluate how well the visualization captures the essence of the data.
  • Data visualization doesn’t always have to be a digital image, it can take many forms. Moritz showed an example of a data sculptured, but you can also think about sonification (turning data into sound), haptics, or even data visualized as food.