Data-a-Day in a Post-Truth World
This past Sunday, Danne Woo, professor of graphic design at New York’s Queens College and self-professed data-monger, reached the seven-month point (211 days) in his project to design and publish a chart a day for one year. The series Chart-A-Day began with data visualizations based on various personal statistics Woo collected on his iPhone and Apple Watch. It quickly became a platform for design reportage, social advocacy and political activism—a place, he says, “to counter ‘alternative facts’ with actual facts gathered from established sources.” By the end of 2017, Woo will have chronicled key events of the year while visualizing the statistical complexities of contemporary society. Woo, who earned an MPS from NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, where he focused on data-driven projects, musical innovation, alternative energy and large crowd interactions, is the co-founder of BigPlay (www.bigplay.me), a multiplayer gaming technology that allows large crowds to interact with big screens, as well as design technologist at Danne Woo Design, which focuses on combining emerging technologies with traditional design principles. I asked him to chart his ups and downs.
What inspired you to do this? The daily visualization project originally started as a way for me (as a user) to better understand the capabilities of the data visualization platform, Datavisual, that I have been developing for the last four years. Researching, designing and publishing a data visualization every day since the beginning of the year has helped me understand where the tool works well and where it can be improved. The idea of developing a creative project every day was inspired by my friend and classmate at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunication Program (ITP), the talented artist Robbie Tilton. He challenged himself to design and publish a 3D rendering, animation or code-generated piece every day for a year.
You cover a range of topics. What are your parameters? The first few visualizations I created used my personal data, which I collected using a number of apps, wearables and devices, including OpenPaths, Apple Watch, Moments App and the iPhone Health App. As the political environment in our country became more tense, the topics for the charts, graphs and maps moved towards the political spectrum to focus on false statements, “alternative facts” and misleading information posted on Twitter and published in both accredited and non-accredited media outlets. What started as just a design and research challenge also became a way for me to bring the truth forward using facts supported by data in a “post-truth” world. Some examples of these false or misleading statements include Trump’s claim that millions of Americans voted illegally, the scare tactics used to imply that all Muslims and illegal immigrants, especially Mexicans, are murderers or terrorists, or the claims that transgender troops should not be able to serve their country because of medical cost or distraction. When choosing a topic, collecting the data and designing the visualization, I try to be as bipartisan and transparent as possible, and I always list the original data source. Considering these are created on a daily basis, some visualizations cover lighter topics like sports, music, entertainment, or whatever happens to be front and center in the headlines and relevant on that particular day.
I notice that the graphics are handsomely designed but not graphically over the top with illustrative elements. Why was this your choice? There are two reasons for this. First, considering I am using Datavisual as the design tool, I am limited to its features and capabilities—but since I am also the creator of the tool I can add new features based on what I might need for a particular visualization. For example, I recently added the capability to upload background images, allowing me to include gradients, icons, patterns and photographs to help visually support the topics. Second, my design beliefs when creating data visualizations lean more towards the Edward Tufte camp of legible and honest visualizations, and away from the Nigel Holmes style of using more illustration, iconography and other related “design elements.” I am trying to visually represent the data in a clear and truthful way and I’ve found that in certain cases design elements tend to clutter and confuse the audience. That being said, I still very much believe design is extremely important when telling the data’s story and use color, type, hierarchy, layout and occasionally imagery to help visually support the topic and data being used.
What is your goal in doing this? My original intention was to understand Datavisual as a user as well as challenge myself creatively and intellectually. Although this is still an aspect of why I am creating these daily visualizations, the overarching goal has now become a way for me to educate myself on the truth behind the very messy and incredibly divided world we currently live in and share my findings and designs with the world through a straight-forward and easy-to-understand visualization. Also, as an assistant professor of design at Queens College, CUNY, I will be teaching a class on data visualization this fall and am excited to share my experience and what I have learned while on this journey. It will also be interesting at the end of the project to look back at the charts as a chronicle of the year’s events, a data-driven annual report of the highs and lows of political and social events in 2017. I see this being in the form of a book or exhibit.
Who do you hope to reach? The idea is to reach the confused and misinformed, those who have been misled by what they believe to be facts but are actually baseless lies or misrepresentations. I am doing my best to bring the truth to light through design using data to educate those who have been force-fed misleading information and to at least start a conversation based on fact rather than fiction. This has proven to be a challenge. I publish all my visualizations on Datavisual, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn and Facebook, but considering most of my current followers already believe these to be true, I find myself preaching to the choir. I hope to find a way to reach a more ideologically diverse demographic to be able to have an open dialogue between people with opposing beliefs and different life experiences. I am also excited to have designers see what can be created using Datavisual and try the tool for themselves as well as inspire them to use their talents to make a difference in the world.
And how’s that goal been reached so far? Today marks my 210th visualization for the year, and I have continued to steadily grow a following on all the social media platforms that I publish on. I have had great support and encouragement since beginning this project from other designers, like my name-sake Richard Danne, as well as data visualization designers, researchers and activists. I will continue to design and publish a daily visualization based on current events and hope to gain viewers from both liberal and conservative beliefs to encourage an open dialogue based on truth and facts. I have also realized that Datavisual is a powerful design tool for creating data-driven graphics, but there is always room for improvement. The great thing about being the user and creator of a tool is that as issues or data and design needs come up, you can make those fixes and improvements yourself.
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