The Daily Heller: A Data Vizazine Inspired by Florence Nightingale

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Nightingale is the journal of the Data Visualization Society. Their goal? To make something visually and textually interesting about why data viz matters, and to continue to foster a growing new community of practitioners. Jason Forrest shares editorial duties with partners Mary Aviles and Claire Santoro, and creative director Julie Brunet, who designed almost every page in the print magazine. Forrest, whose interest in data visualization has resulted in a library of rare and exquisite historic and contemporary examples, gave me a tour of the main magazine and its children’s supplement, which, he says, is influenced by The New York Timesmonthly broadsheet for kids.

As Forrest details, the journey to the publication began on the Society’s website. “While there have been academic journals and data viz zines in the past, there has not been a dedicated weekly publication that focused on the full spectrum of data visualization–related issues. Most of our content is submitted by our global membership and covers a broad set of topics, from design explorations, how-to, career advice, ethics and data viz history to anything else we can think of that has some relationship with data viz or information design. We feature experts and novices alike, and welcome anyone to get involved.

“We expanded to a print magazine because we think there’s a real need to make our work more tacit, and hopefully longer-lasting.”

Why did you go the print magazine route in an age of digital information?
While we think of the internet as being a vast archive, it is surprisingly transitory. We’ve published over 1,000 articles in the past three years, but you can’t hold any of them in your hand or put them on a shelf. Creating physical objects establishes a totally different dynamic for how we regard them. We keep magazines for years, share them with friends or leave them for a chance read around the house or office. A lot of data viz is digital, so creating a print magazine opens new avenues for how we can archive the ideas of our community and share great work in a new format.

How do you see your mission? Are you addressing a range of data collection and display or do you have a POV, like Neurath and his followers?
When data viz is effective, it’s more like magic than mere communication. We love data viz when it grabs your attention and tells a story that you believe more than the essay that surrounds it. We love the alchemy of design, statistical representation and story that really cuts to the heart of the “so what?”

I personally try to engage, support and hopefully inspire people to think of data viz in a longer, deeper history of visual communication that extends far beyond the basic charts we can make with almost any office software and stretches into the defining moments of our society. I see our work in the context of history, building off all aspects of visual representation used to convey some kind of statistical version of the truth, be that extravagantly illustrated or scientifically focused. I am an Otto Neurath scholar, so I deeply empathize with his idea of “educating through the eye.”

What is the most important aspect of so much available data? And what are the dangers?
Data is weird—in some ways it is an exact representation of the real world, and at the same time is a total abstraction of it. Yes, we need all this data to help us understand the world around us and show us the trends about where it might be going, but at the same time, data is only one concept in the very messy real world and can easily lose its meaning.

COVID-19 is a great example, in that the story of COVID was actually the telling of the nuance of its data. Teaching people about rolling seven-day averages and the deeply human exercise of public health data collection was too difficult to explain and too abstract to photograph. Data visualization became the way billions of people could understand what was happening, through maps and charts. When we hit major milestones like 500,000 or 1,000,000 deaths in the USA, we also turned to data viz in an attempt to gain some perspective of how massive that kind of human toll is.

Data viz used to be a prized skill practiced by illustrators, cartographers and other specialized designers. When computers came on the scene, the difficulty of creating a chart dropped dramatically but arguably so did the creativity of its display. Data viz isn’t just the output from a big data warehouse or some data science analysis—it is the human interface of how we use the knowledge.

Why are you using the name Nightingale? Is it a reference to Florence?
Yes! Our name pays tribute to the history of data visualization as embodied by the work of Florence Nightingale. Her pioneering efforts to sanitize hospitals and establish the field of nursing were largely accomplished because of her lifelong interest in collecting data and her ability to spread her influence through the impact of visualized data. We celebrate the innovation, creativity and enlightenment that historic data visualization practitioners like Florence Nightingale inspired among their communities, and seek to do something similar in our world today. We also like that the name Nightingale is both poetic and rooted in something larger.

As an editor, how do you picture your readers? What do you want them to receive from you? How do you want their work to take shape?
We’ve been calling our first issue a community celebration as we created Nightingale in collaboration with 98 people, shipped to 53 countries around the world, and are constantly in touch with our collaborators and community via social media every day. I feel like I have an accurate picture of what our community is—because we’ve helped support it day after day, and continue to do so.

Personally, I want our readers to see Nightingale magazine as fun! We’ve been told that people have been anticipating the arrival of the magazine, that they have been running to meet the postman every day. We want to keep that sense of excitement in our work. The data viz community is vibrant, disjointed, multifaceted and even difficult to define—and that makes it super interesting! We feel like the first few years of Nightingale have helped to broaden the discourse of what we talk about in our community—but Mary, Claire, Julie and I feel like we’re only just scratching the surface of what is possible.

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