Our earliest ancestors drew pictures to make sense of the world around them. Today, advanced tools and computer software can turn complex masses of data into dazzling images.
But information design is more than pretty pictures. It can be a form of persuasion: simplifying complicated information to present a point of view. It can be a form of art: elevating data into provocative designs that draw interest where raw data or a narrative presentation might not. It can be a form of education: distilling data to help viewers grasp its meaning and make shrewd decisions.
Examples abound: Subway maps pull complicated transit grids into simple lines and colors. Newspapers compile voting patterns into easy-to-read graphics. Mobile apps such as Liveplasma use algorithms to display, in spider web-like designs, movie and music suggestions that align with viewers’ tastes.
“We’re in a time of Big Data and information overload. Someone has to make sense of all this information and make it intuitive and accessible”.— Assistant professor Dietmar Offenhuber, head of the Information Design and Visualization program
Through its cutting-edge Information Design and Visualization program—one of the first in the nation—Northeastern trains graduate students to make sense of a world that is increasingly fueled by data. Faculty members who are leaders in this emerging field help students transform dense data into pictures, interactive Web features, and 3-D designs.
Software such as Tableau, Adobe Illustrator, and Processing make it possible to turn thousands of data points into compelling images. This in-demand skill offers students flexibility in their career choices: Professions ranging from politics and engineering, to medicine and advertising regularly present data through images.
“Our world is full of data sets, numbers, and figures,” says Jessica Hopkins, AMD’16, a student in the program. “Within those, stories are waiting to be unearthed.”
Here’s a look at how our faculty and students are doing just that.
Shaping public policy with pictures
Physics professor Alessandro Vespignani is fascinated by networks—in particular, how infectious diseases spread.
The Sternberg Family Distinguished University Professor has earned national acclaim for gathering large data sets about travel patterns and disease, and predicting where an outbreak will move next. The data are stored in computerized databases, allowing Vespignani to run algorithms and test possible outcomes. He shares his work with both the public and international health organizations, presenting his findings not only in words but also in images—so-called data visualizations.
In fact, Vespignani considers data visualization so critical to his work that his lab employs a full-time designer, Nicole Samay, whom he calls the “brains behind our viz.”
Vespignani saw the power of pictures last fall, during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In October, the U.S. and several other countries began to weigh whether they should enact travel bans in that region. A Texas man returning from Liberia had just been diagnosed with the first U.S. case of Ebola.
Vespignani already possessed travel-pattern data from several international airlines. He used data about heavily traveled routes to and from West Africa, as well as predictive patterns of disease, to show—in visual form—countries that were most at risk of seeing Ebola cases. For example, there are especially large passenger flows to and from West Africa and the U.S. and U.K.
Publications around the world printed Vespignani’s map. It was also the focus of a U.S. congressional floor debate about whether to enact travel restrictions. Some members of Congress used the map to argue that a West Africa travel ban was necessary to slow the spread of Ebola. Others referenced the map to argue that a ban would prompt passengers to reroute through other countries, making those passengers tougher to track and intensifying the spread of the disease.
In the end, the Obama administration tightened travel rules by deciding to funnel travelers from West African countries through five U.S. airports.
Vespignani says his goal is not to push an agenda or generate controversy. His aim is to arm decision makers with useful data in forms that are easily understood.
“Spreadsheets are good—you can sift through the numbers and find patterns there. But our brain finds that much easier to do in an image,” he says. “It holds true that a picture is worth a thousand words.”
Data as provocative art
Professor Dietmar Offenhuber is drawn to the pace and dynamism of cities—and the volumes of data that describe urban life.
As the director of Northeastern’s Information Design and Visualization program, Offenhuber views cities as an intriguing subject to capture in visual form. He uses giant data sets to make 3-D artwork that is civic-minded yet playful.
For a piece called “Sorting the Cities,” at Tokyo’s Miraikan Museum, Offenhuber thought about the myriad statistics that define cities, from water use to urban dwellers’ annual incomes. He gathered millions of city-based data points and wrote a computer program to create a digital design that ran across a 10-foot-wide globe suspended from the museum’s ceiling. Cities that normally appear as tiny dots on a globe expanded and contracted to reflect the resources they consume.
The result is a dramatic, pulsating effect that reflects the outsized role that cities will play in the 21st century.
“When you read statistics and indicators, often those seem abstract,” he says. “I tried to visualize cities by literally reorganizing space—re-sorting the world so that you see the impact of cities compared to all of these other land masses.”
In Linz, Austria, Offenhuber again used data to create a thought-provoking piece of art. He displayed—in public and in real time—hundreds of online complaints that residents submitted about city services. Software lit up large squares on the facade of a museum next to City Hall to reflect every complaint filed. A choir of four automated voices read the complaints aloud so that people walking through the civic space might hear a voice complaining about potholes or an unkempt park. The piece made passersby laugh and think, Offenhuber says.
“The city is always in motion: There’s never a time when everything has been cleaned up and repaired,” he says. “In this case, the data visualization was not a tool for analysis, but something to amuse and raise public discussion.”
Rethinking the food label
A simple box of macaroni and cheese suddenly seems complex when you peer at its label. Hard-to-pronounce ingredients and nutrient percentages appear in a bland, black-and-white table. In a nation that is increasingly focused on healthy eating, why are these labels so dull and hard to read?
Renee Walker, AS’02, had wondered that many times while walking through the aisles of her local grocery store. Walker, who runs her own graphic-design business in Philadelphia, knew there had to be a more effective way to depict the ubiquitous food label. When UC Berkeley held a 2011 contest to reimagine and redesign food labels, she signed up.
Her solution was chosen as the winning entry by a panel that included Michael Pollan, a luminary in the food world known for his books on healthy eating. Walker’s labels—a compelling example of information design—caused a stir when GOOD Magazine published them and The New York Times reprinted them in its popular Wellness blog.
Walker wanted to create labels that “weren’t written in scientific macro-nutrient language and were more about the actual ingredients. I wanted to use visual forms—shapes and colors—instead of just listing data.”
Her solution was to draw ingredients as boxes of different sizes, representing how much of each ingredient is in the product—and alerting customers to whether the food is over-processed. She also used bright colors to represent “real” ingredients, such as fruits and vegetables, and drabber hues for artificial additives.
She added thumbs-up and thumbs-down icons next to items such as fat, sodium, or vitamin C, if the product contained more or less of that item than the government-recommended daily allowance. That allows consumers to quickly tell whether the food is nutritious.
Walker knew that some facets of her reimagined food labels would be unrealistic: For example, it might cost companies too much to print several colors per label. But her goal was to “get people thinking and spark a conversation” about whether better-designed labels could influence customers’ food choices.
“It goes back to hieroglyphics,” she says. “Pictures are a natural way to communicate complex and abstract ideas.”
Images of energy
In the basement of Northeastern’s Richards Hall, a server spits out energy-use data in 15-minute intervals. These numbers are the digital footprints of the power it takes to run a 73-acre university.
Kristian Kloeckl, an associate professor in the data visualization program, wondered what the numbers would reveal if they were drawn as images. Would patterns emerge? Because the university buys energy a year in advance, could it make smarter choices if it saw energy consumption in visual form?
“Urban environments today are filled with networked technologies,” Kloeckl says. “You can use that data to better understand how urban spaces function. Northeastern is a good example because it is a city-within-a-city.”
Kloeckl’s 12 graduate students recently created data visualizations of energy use on campus, using thousands of data points provided by the Northeastern Facilities Energy Group. The results ranged from a campus map with colors that brighten and dim as energy use changes, to a wheel shape that displays energy information about each building as viewers click on each spoke.
Skye Moret, MFA’16, focused on Matthews Arena, which has the largest fluctuations in energy use of any campus building.
To capture what she calls “the pulse” of the arena, Moret created a radial diagram that shows the hourly, monthly, and annual energy consumption. The animated diagram expands in and out like a heartbeat as kilowatt-hours increase and decrease.
The pictures helped Moret see how inefficient the arena can be—especially during hockey season, when inefficient compressors chill the ice. “Making a clocklike form was critical to teasing out those patterns,” she says.
Xuan Zhang, AMD’16, created an octopuslike graphic, with each tentacle representing a type of building category on campus, such as libraries, classrooms, and sports venues. The image runs as an animation and the tentacles extend in and out as energy use swells and recedes.
Joe Ranahan, Northeastern’s energy manager, says the projects capture building-specific trends that it normally takes his team hours to decipher. He hopes the campus energy system will someday have a similar tool.
“The ‘cause-and-effect’ relationships that these dynamic images reveal can help our staff diagnose inefficient building operation and allow quicker response to energy- savings opportunities,” he says.