How to Tell a Story with Data. Imagine the stories that numbers in a… | by National Library Singapore | Our Stories: National Library Singapore Blog | Nov, 2022

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Stories are everywhere around us. Growing up, we encounter stories in books, in libraries or through our parents and grandparents. But did you know that you can tell stories with data? Join Librarian Kevin Seet as he explores what data visualisation is and how it helps tell stories about the world we live in.

As anyone who has stared at endless rows and columns in a spreadsheet can attest, collecting data is one thing; making sense of it is something else altogether.

To help us understand and process the data collected, data scientists turn to something called data visualisation. This is typically a graphic representation of the project’s findings or data.

The data (usually in a large table, bland, full of plain text and numbers) is translated into a visual form, allowing us to understand and interpret data more easily. These visualisations help us explain the data to an audience who needs to understand it better. Whether it is for stakeholders, potential customers, or students, data is illustrated in a visual manner to explain, elaborate, or elucidate — in essence, to tell a story.

Data visualisation is not new. Think about pie charts and bar graphs that modern spreadsheet programs can easily create. However, these days, we are able to go way beyond a simple pie chart. Technology has developed new ways of understanding and presenting data, resulting in more interactive and engaging means of storytelling.

Augmented and virtual reality devices now allow us to explore data almost physically in a 3-D space. Take, for instance, this TikTok video, which explains two simple models for the spread of COVID-19. The data literally comes to life right in front of you through augmented reality via your device, and you can physically walk around and interact with it. The result is an immersive, engaging way to understand an otherwise dry and academic topic.

Screengrab from an augmented reality demonstration of superspreader events contributing to an R-value of 2 for a virus. Credit: Michael DiBenigno (@the.data.guy), 2020. “Thank you @epidemiologistkat for continuing to communicate research driven insights… I just help visualize them and share a story. #datastory #AR”. TikTok, November 4, 2020, https://tiktok.com/@the.data.guy/video/6891058199525444869

With a little creativity, almost anything — emotions, sentiments or even otherwise mundane topics — can be presented in beautiful visualisations. In 2015, two information designers Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec embarked on a data drawing project that presented their everyday stories via data in postcards. The year-long project saw the two designers describing their lives — even banal details such as how often they laugh in a week — to each other on postcards that were sent weekly. The postcards are a kaleidoscope of colours and patterns that could be itself a form of art. They’ve also published a book of the same title documenting their project.

A week of laughters visualised, and how to create or read it. Credit: Lupi, Georgia, & Posavec, Stefanie. 2017. “The Project”. Dear Data. Accessed November 10, 2022. http://www.deardata.com/theproject

Over at Hedonometer.org, researchers aim to characterise an index of happiness over a period of time. This is done using text mining from Twitter and crowdsourced sentiment analysis. Changes in happiness is also measured by looking at how often positive or negative words are used. The daily index is tagged to significant incidents, so you can guess the state of happiness on special occasions, and compare that with other days. Visually, this presents the pulse of the global state of happiness over time.

Hedonometer chart of average happiness for Twitter in 2020. Credit: Computational Story Lab. “The Hedonometer.” Hedonometer. 2022. https://www.hedonometer.org/.

This approach can even be applied to books or movie scripts, giving us an interesting insight into the emotional ups-and-downs as readers or viewers progress through a story. A complex story such as Les Miserables by Victor Hugo is understandably quite emotionally chaotic, whereas movies and animation for children tend to be less emotionally turbulent.

Hedonometer chart of happiness in Les Miserables (left) and Wall-E (right) over the length of the respective book/script. Credit: Computational Story Lab. “Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.” Hedonometer. 2022. Computational Story Lab. “Wall E.” Hedonometer. 2022.

Almost anything can be viewed as data. A little creativity is all it takes to imagine and visualise data in an interesting manner, while technology makes that visualisation a reality through the use of the latest software. This New Atlas article provides some examples of interesting applications when we transform data (such as air traffic, wind patterns, photographs, movie scenes, even movie time travel patterns) into gorgeous works of art.

“Paths of air traffic over North America visualized in color and form.” Credit: Aaron Koblin. “Flight Patterns” accessed 11 May 2022

I first encountered the beauty of data back in 2006. Artist and computer scientist Jonathan Harris and partner Sep Kamvar had produced “We Feel Fine”, a website that managed to beautifully and creatively capture a glimpse of the world through the use of digital data. For instance, tweets were visualised as coloured circles or squares based on the emotions mentioned, forming a swirling rainbow mass of particles which can be filtered and explored, bring a world of textual data to life. The same particles can be organised into rows of shared feelings, sorted by the length of each tweet.

Posts organised into the movements called “Madness” and “Mobs”. Credit: Jonathan Harris & Sep Kamvar. “Movements.” We Feel Fine, accessed 17 November 2022

Harris presented this work at a TED conference in 2007, after which it went on to influence some of the projects mentioned here.

Credit: Jonathan Harris. “The Web’s secret stories”. Also available on TED, March 2007

Data visualisation has become even more important as data sets become even larger and more complex. Thanks to the proliferation of microchips everywhere, modern societies have the ability to gather vast seas of data of just about everything. Making all this data comprehensible has become a much harder task as a result.

Back in April 2022, I shared about big data and its relevance at A Librarian’s World, the National Library’s series of talks hosted by librarians. You can also find more interesting examples of data visualisation at the website Information is Beautiful. With the right understanding and a touch of inspiration, you, too, can produce your own creative visualisation of data, revealing a story hidden in the ever-growing world of data.

Further reading:
Adam Frost, Communicating with Data Visualisation: A Practical Guide. (London: SAGE Publications, 2022). (Call no. 001.4226 FRO)

Chip Heath & Karla Starr, Making Numbers Count: The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers. (Avid Reader Press, 2022). (Call no. 001.4226 HEA). Also available in eBook format.

David McCandless, Beautiful News. (London: William Collins, 2021). (Call no. 031.0222 MAC). Also available in eBook format.

David McCandless. “Information is Beautiful.” Information is beautiful, last reviewed 21 April 2022.

Dick Murray, The Infographic: A History of Data Graphics in News and Communications. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2020). (Call no. 001.4226 DIC). Also available in eBook format.

Kevin Seet is a Librarian with the National Library, Singapore, where he oversees the Business, Science and Technology collections. His interests lie in the overlaps between science, technology and society. Besides managing the collections, his responsibilities also include developing content and providing reference and research services.

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