The big picture of big data: Data visualiser Wes Grubbs

Data is, as they say, big. It’s everywhere. We’re all creating it all the time. And within all the data are stories. Millions and millions of stories. And to help us make sense of those stories, a new breed of data visualisation has arisen to deepen and broaden our understanding of the world around us.

Wes Grubbs, a speaker at this year’s Semi-Permanent in Wellington next week, is an Oakland-based data visualiser and founder of Pitch Interactive, a studio which combines code, design and statistics to communicate large sets of complex data for clients like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Wired, and Scientific American.

With degrees in International Economics and Information Systems, Grubbs' work focuses on revealing patterns of human behaviour and how our actions impact our environment. His work includes illustrations, installations, projections, console game user interfaces, software applications, websites and textiles.

Image: Wes Grubbs

Idealog asked him some questions about data visualisation and data journalism.

How did your work as an economist influence your work as a designer?

My work has always been involved in drawing relationships between points. With economics, it was understanding that there are correlations between things like how the price of bread in Afghanistan can be used to predict the amount of heroin that will be in New York next year. And in order to communicate this effectively, to tell that story, design has been a crucial step.

To what extent do you think of your work as design, as journalism, and as advocacy?

I will typically start out as an advocate or journalist with my team to understand the story we are trying to tell and find the data to incorporate for this story. But once a story is set, then design takes front and centre stage as we work to communicate the story visually.

Why do you think there’s currently so much interest in data visualisation?

Data is becoming more accessible as are the tools we need to process and analyse the data. People realise that a lot can be accomplished when you combine the data with technology and design to tell stories that words or photographs alone simply cannot tell. Data journalism can be highly effective to convey information to people who may be unfamiliar with the subject.

Image: Analysis of 100 million phonecalls for Wired

What are the opportunities in telling stories and presenting information in that way?

The opportunities are countless. You can give a much broader perspective into a topic, such as the presidential elections we’re gearing up for in the US, or showing corruption in your government. Data visualisation allows you to take very complex issues and distill them in meaningful ways.

What are the most common mistakes designers of data visualisation make?

The mistakes I see are in work where there is no balance between the design and the data. Maybe visuals, such as infographics, are so heavy on the design that viewers lose sense of the story being told. Or there are visuals which are so heavy on the data that the design is neglected and people don’t engage.

How do you balance clarity, aesthetics, and novelty?

For our work, we are always striving to find that balance between the data and the design. We want to reveal what people need to see and not much more. And as we are working on the design, we want to always make sure the design is communicating the story we’re telling with the data.

Image: Interactive on TXT abbreviations for AT&T

Where is data visualisation heading?

I think data visualisation is expanding and growing into more fields, mediums and techniques. Our work is breaking away from a desktop or print experience and turning into interactive walls, tables, projections, and VR.

What can people expect from your presentation at Semi-Permanent?

My presentation is going to be more personal. The brief was to leave a piece of myself on the stage and I plan to do just that. I want to talk about how important it is that we have a solid work/life balance and that we know what happiness is and how to maintain it. I’ll be tying this into my work, but this will definitely be a personal talk.

Image: Out of Sight, Out of Mind, documenting every drone strike carried out in Pakistan 

***

Idealog's 5 favourite data visualisations (not by Wes Grubbs)

The Year of Outrage by Slate

What's Really Warming the World by Bloomberg

Your Life In Weeks by Tim Urban

A Nation Divided by Ziet

Richest and Poorest Suburbs by Herald Insights