Infographics on the web are so bad and so broken. They are everywhere, yet few actually do a decent job of conveying information (click on the one at left to see what I mean). Some even argue that they are ruining the Internet. They tend to be formulaic and overreaching, often cobbling together too much information instead of focusing on the one or two nuggets that are truly useful. (How much better would most infographics be if they pulled out the most salient chart or set of stats and discarded the rest?)
There are many reasons why they suck. Primary among those is that they take too long to make, and the underlying data is difficult to assemble. Today, they are driven more by marketing budgets than editorial discretion. Most of them are created by companies and distributed for “free” to blogs and media outlets as a form of PR and viral marketing. The publishers eat them up because it is free content that would otherwise be expensive to produce. Design shops sometimes charge a few thousand dollars to create a single infographic.
I know we can do better, which is why I’ve applied for a grant from the Knight News Challenge on Data to build a data visualization platform to address some of these shortcomings (please like it or reblog it on Tumblr). You can also learn more in this Q&A about the project I did with Jeff Davis.
As I note in my Knight News application:
Infographics are very popular on the web, but most of them aren’t very good. The information inside them is trapped. They tend to be flat files, unsearchable, and most are not interactive.
And yet people love them because humans are visual creatures. We can absorb more data more quickly by glancing at a chart than scanning the same numbers in a table, or reading through a few paragraphs. Publishers love infographics because readers can’t stop themselves from clicking on them. (A whole sub-meme exists for infographics about infographics, including the one below by Think Brilliant, which is actually a rare example of an effective infographic).
What publishers need is a better way to create and present visual data. We need a tool to produce well-designed infographics on our own—quickly, efficiently, and cheaply. And not just one-size-fits-all infographics—all kinds of data visualizations, from simple bar charts to interactive maps and timelines.
But wait. Aren’t there a growing number of startups already tackling this infographic-creation problem? Yes, companies like Visual.ly, Infogr.am, Vizualize.me, Tableau Software, and iCharts are creating tools in this general area. And that’s great. If they can do a better job creating these visualizations, I’d love to work with them. However, all of them currently embrace a bring-your-own-data approach.
Producing a great interactive chart is only half the battle. A platform that taps into existing data and makes it instantly chartable is what is missing. Finding the right sources of data in a chartable form is the hard part. There is lots of compelling data all over the Internet: social data (Facebook and Twitter), company data (CrunchBase), financial data (SEC, Yahoo Finance), geo data (Foursquare, Factual), government data (data.gov), product data (Amazon). It all exists in various silos, and most of it cannot be browsed visually.
The big idea here is to create a data visualization platform where data providers can plug into one end and data visualizers can plug into the other. It will be open in that anyone will be able to import or create their own infographic and charting templates. Some of the data and charts will be free, and some will be for sale. But the more open, the better.
Initially, the platform will be geared towards bloggers and news organizations, but could expand to other industries and types of data. Again, from my Knight News Challenge proposal:
We are solving this problem for publishers. First, we will create a library of interactive chart templates, which can be expanded and contributed to by others. By creating templates, we will make it possible to produce high-quality data visualizations in an efficient, repetitive fashion which can be embedded anywhere.
We will also connect existing databases and work with data providers to offer a growing menu of chartable data sets geared towards journalists. Journalists will be able to bring their own data, but over time they will be able to find more of what they need baked into the platform.
The best data visualizations out there today are bespoke and almost hand-crafted. That doesn’t scale for web publishing in terms of either economics or speed. Most blogs and web news organizations don’t have an art department. A platform for creating decent looking interactive infographics is certainly something I would use, and I suspect other bloggers and news publishers would embrace it as well.
If you think it’s a good candidate for the Knight News Data Challenge, please support it by “hearting” the application or reblogging it. If you are a data provider or a company creating data visualizations, let me know what is the best way to work with you. And if you are a programmer or information designer and would like to get involved, please contact me (erickschonfeld at gmail).
We are awash in data, but we can’t even see it. The data visualization platform I envision would be a step towards fixing infographics so that they actually tell us something new.