The State of DATA Storytelling-01

The State of Data Storytelling

I had the pleasure of attending the tapestry conference last week, organized by tableau. It’s the second year of an invite only conference of people who are geeky* about the intersection of data and visualization. This includes journalists, professors, designers and practitioners.


Whatever name it goes by, Data Visualization, Information Graphics, Visual Storytelling, it reminds me of the state of the web in the early nineties. Back then, the web, Internet, Information Superhighway, (it went by many names too), was a gathering of like-minded geeks who were excited about the future, and argued over it. Tools were poor, (bbedit anyone?), dead-ends looked like new pastures (remember vrml?), and religious wars raged over the ‘right’ way to do things. Data visualization is going through those same growing pains. That’s both exciting, and to me, an indication of the state of things to come.

The conference itself was attended by a who’s who of people to know in this space — Isabel Meirelles, Bryan Connor, Francis Gagnon, Robert SimmonGabriele RossiGregor Aisch, Ben Shniederman and Naomi Robbins to name a few.

The one-day conference was kicked off by the always interesting Alberto Cairo, who discussed his thoughts on the future of visualization. He clarified his view of the features that define a great infographic, one that is:

  1. TRUTHFUL, leaving some grey area for “most probable” truth.
  2. FUNCTIONAL, using forms that are not tied to aesthetics but tied to the task at hand.**
  4. INSIGHTFUL, having a clear point to them, and
  5. ENLIGHTENING, that will change one’s mind for the better.

This is a useful framework from Alberto, though the work is incomplete on what satisfies the requirements of functional and beautiful.

The mid-part of the day was taken up with mini lectures, with standouts from Jon Schwabish, Emma Coats of Pixar’s rules of story fame, Santiago Ortiz and Giorgia Lupi. I particularly liked Jon’s points on goofy comparisons, probably because they mirrored mine.

Some interesting demos and posters, particularly an introduction to Lyra, which bears watching, were then closed out by a Keynote from Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg, who lead Google’s “Big Picture” visualization research group in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They made some entertaining comparisons of literary genres to infographic types.

So what is the state of Data Storytelling?

If the Tapestry confidence is anything to go by, we have a promising toddler on our hands. There are a lot of people with different backgrounds and sensibilities who are practicing in this space. Some, such as Cairo, are shaping the market, with their ideas and critiques. Some are making the market, beginning to carve out a living in this lucrative space. For journalists, it may well breathe new life into an industry that, if not dead, is at its last gasp. Still others are building tools for the Goldrush to come, perhaps remembering wisely that the real fortunes were made by the providers of tools to the miners, not the miners themselves.

*I mean that in a good way, and include myself in that number.

Gavin_Animated-GifGavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.

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