Opinion

Data Visualization

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see.” Could Franklin, a founding father of the United States and considered a genius by many, have predicted that art and the representation of ‘truth’ would have become so entwined today? Although historically most artwork rarely engaged in a political dialogue overtly, programmatic artists and designers are developing more trustworthy approaches to representing information.

Mark Lombardi, "George W. Bush, Harken Energy, and Jackson Stevens c. 1979-90, (5th version)". Image from the Pierogi website.
Mark Lombardi, “George W. Bush, Harken Energy, and Jackson Stevens c. 1979-90, (5th version)” (image from the Pierogi website)

Mark Lombardi could be considered a godfather of the data-visualization commonly made today. His work as a reference librarian allowed him the time and resources to examine the inner-workings of  politicians and corporations with a fine-toothed comb. His “Narrative Structures” as he called them, represent a huge amount of information and research boiled down into a beautiful and clear flow chart.

The past 100 years has seen an explosion of raw data, whether from meta-data embedded in our phones or census information, and appropriately info-graphics have become commonplace in many papers and debates. Journalism has benefited from this new data bank; articles that were before merely postulation are now verifiably true (or untrue) and are able to be represented visually for ease.

"Interactive Map: The Economy Where You Live" from NPR's website.
“Interactive Map: The Economy Where You Live” from NPR’s website.

Have you ever seen an graph or data visualization that helped you to finally understand what you had read or heard? Maybe because I am a visual thinker these maps and graphs tend to be extremely helpful for my own learning. Some recent examples of these visualizations that offered an “aha!” moment include Hans Rosling’s Ted talk about HIV or this map detailing the economy of the United States from NPR.

But wouldn’t these be considered design, and not art? I don’t know, I have never been filled with a strong need to classify what is or is not art, but these examples are certainly very scientific. What happens when we re-introduce a more aesthetic sensibility onto these maps and graphs? Paul Rucker’s “Proliferation” is the stunning answer. Incorporating a musical element and a more stylized format, Rucker sought to make the information more heartfelt.

I hope to see work like Rucker’s become more common. I believe that artists, knowingly or not, do have a place in politics. Given the aesthetic sensibilities and the new tools artists have, it would make sense to see more artists participate in the representation of data.

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