Data Visualization: Is it the Future of the Internet?

Samantha Warren, Former Viget

Article Category: #Design & Content

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There is social media popping up everywhere and sucking data out of our heads (and hearts) propelling it into the vast wonderment of The Internets.  We're bombarded with locations, opinions, emotions, hometowns, and photographs, and even our deepest darkest secrets ... all of which is massively being compiled and sorted.

The web is an immense and wonderful resource that can be tapped for so many purposes; the trick to leveraging it will be establishing interesting and useful ways to navigate it. At one point, I was certain it would be the future of the web. I have blogged about interactive information design and social media before. It is something that holds a place deep in my heart; however -- contrary to my previous blog post -- I am beginning to wonder where its place on the web will be.

Visualizations, which are a fantastic marriage of design thinking and badass technology on the web today, can enrich the user experience by creating an environment in which the user physically interacts with data. Invigorating my infatuation with this concept is, a site that extracts adjectives in Twitter's tweets, displays them by color, and allows the user to view tweets grouped by similar feelings. Twistori led me to revisit and rethink Jonathan Harris'  "We Feel Fine," one of the most spectacular blends of social media and interactive information design on the web.

We Feel Fine scans the Internet for blogs and gathers sentences that state "I feel" or "I am feeling" in them. It then systematically indexes the full sentence up to the period and catalogs the feeling by various traits such as location and gender. The data is then translated into dots that represent the feelings; the brightness of color determining how happy the feeling is and the size representing the length of the sentence.

The site collects an average of 20,000 feelings a day and has cataloged more than 7.5 million feelings since its existence.  It's innovative, entertaining, and thought-provoking. Harris showcased it and his newest interactive project Universe at Ted Talks; I highly recommend the video.
Stamen Design is a company that has built its portfolio on sites that beautifully execute data visualizations. It's responsible for the work at Digg Labs, a collection of online data interactive projects that experiment with visually illustrating the content and community at Digg. The visualizations at Digg Labs communicate a hierarchy through size and shape based on the number of articles received. The correlation between the visuals and the data they represent is vague, yet entertaining.

Deciphering the meaning behind the design at Digg Labs is one thing, but when looking at another Stamen's visualizations, Twitter Blocks, then rhyme and reason is much harder to determine. Much like the work of Harris, Stamen's work is interesting, amusing and innovative; however, I find much of it difficult to use and once the fun wears off, often frustrating and confusing.
Back in September, in my previous post on this subject, I used Etsy as an example of data visualization for e-commerce. Etsy had feature that visualized your user connections and the items they favorited as a means of helping users discover things they may not have been looking for.  Essentially they had managed to translate a search mechanism for a "style."  Since my previous post on the subject, I have visited these features more often to show off cool information design than I do to actually navigate the information they represent. Unfortunately, it is no longer available on their site. (I am just speculating by guessing they took it off the site because it was not getting a lot of traffic).

While innovative strides are being taken in online interaction design, there is still a gaping void in making data visualization a useful tool. While I am a big fan of Digg Labs, searching Digg (or Mixx) using the traditional search box or having popular headlines percolate to the top of a list via a widget still works best for me.

There is a part of me that sees this as being the future of the web, but more and more I am struggling to find the right application for it. While it is entertaining and intriguing, how could this be effectively be monetized? How would consumers use it to enhance the means of reaching their final goals?

If there are any examples of interactive information design out there that you use and find helpful and compelling, please feel free to share them here.

More examples of info graphics and interactive data visualizations, check out:

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