Last month I presented BuzzData to Hacks/Hackers Ottawa, a gathering of enthusiastic journalists and developers bent on learning the best ways to tell stories digitally. What with BuzzData’s socially-enabled data-publishing features, our product was well-received by the audience. I had a great time.
While there, I met Amanda Shendruk, a 26-year-old journalist-entrepreneur who did a presentation on information visualization. Shendruk’s insights were thoughtful and well-researched; the work she displayed was startlingly good, considering her academic background was in Spanish and politics, not graphics design or IT, as I expected.
Data-viz entrepreneur Amanda Shendruk’s info-viz portrayal of Canadian student vote mobs.
Shendruk recently launched her own data-viz business, Aesthetic Intelligence, which “explores and creates fresh ways of presenting information by combining visual design and data.” While her student peers scramble for footing in the entry-level job market, Shendruk is planning to make a living off her data-viz savvy, and she’s already off to a good start.
Shendruk’s commitment to visual storytelling, as well as her early success at monetizing her skills, is an inspiration to any journalist who has ever been daunted by the steep technical learning curve of wrangling and visualizing data.
Here, Shendruk explains how she jumped into the info-viz game:
You don’t come from a graphics design or data background, which is a bit surprising.
No I don’t. I have one degree, an undergraduate degree in Spanish. I’m currently working on a second undergraduate degree in politics and communications.
But my dad is a graphics designer, so I think I just absorbed a lot by being around him. He would always engage me; even as a kid he would show me his work and ask me to tell him what I thought of it, or or he would show me some kind of design from somewhere and ask me if I thought it was good design or bad design.
Ever since I was young, we just talked about design. I probably learned a lot there. Probably more than I think.
Do you ever get frustrated with how conventional journalism is done?
Yeah. Part of what I’m interested in is the most effective way to display, organize and disseminate information. I don’t think that everything should always be turned into a graphic. I don’t think everything needs to be an information graphic, or that everything needs to be visualized.
I don’t think there’s enough acceptance or maybe understanding right now that there are various mediums through which to present a story. A graphic isn’t always the best medium, but a narrative isn’t always the best medium.
But more than that, I do think there needs to be a better understanding of numbers and statistics in general, and then I think that it will be easier for people to present them, too. Even narratively.
Shendruk re-thinks Canada’s food pyramid (which perhaps shouldn’t be a pyramid at all)
Where do you look to stay on top of your craft?
I read academic papers about cognitive science and perception. I’m interested in (things like) “How do we perceive one colour over another?” “How does our memory work?” “How many concepts can we really retain in our short-term memory?” So (for example, you shouldn’t) make your visualizations overly complicated because we can’t actually hold all that information in our minds, anyway.
I still have a lot of reading and a lot of exploring to do in the area, but I like to base what I do on science, on actual studies.
That being said, some of it is just gut: “This is what I think is good design, and it’s what I think is clear, so that’s what I’ll put out there.”
Is there any cognitive “rule of thumb” of the human brain that really surprised you?
A really interesting study that I just recently read, from the University of Saskatchewan, was about chart junk.
They had some people look at embellished charts and then just the graph versions, then they compared what people got out of the charts. When they tested the same people weeks later, the memory retention for the people who had looked at the charts with drawings on them, or “chart junk” — I don’t like to call it chart junk because it’s such a negative term — was actually better than those who looked at the static graphs.
I found this very interesting because there’s a lot of debate online and a lot of big players in the information design industry who say that your charts should cut out anything extraneous.
Shendruk’s go-to example of excessive chart junk. (Graphic from GOOD Magazine)
Stephen Few certainly comes to mind.
Yeah. I love reading Few’s blog because he just goes off on (info-visual artist) David McCandless, and it was when I started reading (Few) I really noticed the inaccuracies in McCandless’s work. But that being said, I still don’t fall into Few’s camp.
Yeah, Few tends to boil visualization down to bar graphs a lot of the time, it seems to me.
There’s two things to say there. First of all, people don’t look at bar graphs and pie charts in the same way that they’d look at a data visualization. People just aren’t drawn to them in the same way.
The Eyetrack study from the Poynter Institute that I talked about during Hacks Hackers found that people look at them a lot less than they expected, actually. Or their attention was grabbed a lot less than they expected.
Second, there are different types of information visualizations and graphics for different audiences.
I fully admit that my audience is the general public. I’m clarifying data for mass consumption. I don’t think CEOs and CFOs in Fortune 500 companies should be using my infographics to make business decisions.
I’m trying to convey ideas and concepts; not even exact numbers. Sometimes I’m conveying exact numbers. But a lot of the time, it’s just ratios.
On the flight graphic that I made, it’s not important exactly the difference between how many people fly to New York, or to Chicago, or to San Francisco. The point is, you can clearly see that way more people fly to these three places, whatever they are, and that’s the interesting part.
At a glance, you can get the information that you’ll remember. You won’t remember the exact number of people that fly to Ft. Lauderdale or Boston. But you will remember that San Francisco, Washington and New York are the top three places that people fly to from Ottawa.
Do you see yourself doing this fulltime once you’re done school?
Yeah, I’d like to. I think I could, because just the amount of work that I’m getting right now, and I’ve only been in business for 3-4 months, I see myself being able to sustain myself with this as a business.
I have to finish school first, but I really spend most of my time focusing on this anyway. I go to class but I’m just trying to get it done, so I can put all my effort into this.