Fostering Insights by Engaging the Whole Brain
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
Here’s a fresh look at efforts to bring data to life using sound, motion and graphics. I’ve posted before on the largely untapped potential to communicate information and ideas in new ways. The images above of brain activity related to processing or speaking words (from the National Institutes of Health) convey how multimedia communication might more fully engage the brain.
Advertisers have known this for ages, of course, surrounding engaging images of powerful pickup trucks or polished luxury cars with familiar rock anthems and soaring classical themes.
But I’m not talking about salesmanship here. I’m talking about the potential to have an idea or observation built around empirical data become more engaging and inspiring. As I’ve noted, Adam Nieman’s depiction of the volume of the world’s liquid water as a sphere set against the planet is one such effort.
At a session on building healthy communities at the recent South by Southwest Eco conference, I talked with Howard K. Koh, the assistant secretary of health, and Bob Perciasepe, the deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, about the challenge of conveying the enormous costs — in shortened and impaired lives — of air pollution when that toll is only measurable through statistical analysis. The demand from skeptical politicians, Perciasepe said, is, “Show me the bodies.”
I put out the challenge there (and now repeat it here) to young data-visualization wizards to find ways to envision, literally, that vague but vital concept called public health.
There are signs of progress in this area.
When the New England Journal of Medicine uses an animated data set to convey shifting patterns of obesity in a community, you know something’s afoot. Now there’s a peer-reviewed publication, the Journal of Visualized Experiments, devoted to conveying findings and methods using video.
To learn more about the state of this art, visit visualizing.org, follow David McCandless on Twitter, watch his TED talk, read his Information Is Beautiful blog and check out the contestants in that blog’s current contest, including this effort to convey the world’s finite stocks of important minerals using both music and graphics: