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Visualising data for a transparent government

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Have you seen the big blue bubbles on pages in the Guardian, a wordle of President Obama’s inauguration speech, or a Googlemap of all the roadworks in your area? Presenting data in new and interesting ways is the trend du jour. We live in a data driven world, so being able to see complicated information presented as a well-designed infographic is going to make it easier for us to process that data.
bubble chart
A good visualisation can help us understand data, and, let’s face it – graphs are boring. Now more than ever, the children of the data-driven world are using their technological skills to present data in new and increasingly artistic ways – data visualisation has become an artform itself. We have a natural bias towards pictures – when you open a newspaper page your eye is drawn to the image first – and now increasing amounts of data is becoming available on the web – perceptive and innovative visualisations are an imperative.

But data developers are drawn to make pretty pictures of human activity – data visualisation of public sector information is scarce, and often clunky. A good visualisation should involve the reader – leave avenues open to interpretation but present a clear message but most of all highlight certain figures and patterns.

Here’s a site which encourages and supports good practise from developers visualising public data. DataViz say a good visualisation does the following:

  • Think about the message you are trying to convey to the audience with this particular visualisation
  • What’s the purpose of the visualistion, communication? exploration? Don’t try and do it all at once
  • Avoid distorting what the data have to say
  • Present many numbers in a small space – but also emphasise the important numbers
  • Make large data sets coherent, and encourage the audience to compare different pieces of data
  • Reveal the data at several levels of detail, from a broad overview to the fine structure

There’s also a list of tools which may help you.

With the government promising to open up all data to developers online – the cabinet office are even calling on data developers to show them how to get it right.

We have an early preview of what the site could look like; we are now inviting interaction and comment from the developer community. With over 1000 existing data sets, from 7 departments (brought together in re-useable form for the first time) and community resources, we want developers to work with us to use the data to create great applications; give us feedback on the early operational community; and tell us how to develop what we have into a single point of access for government-held public data.

San Francisco have already got data developers to turn municipal information into useful tools with SFapps, hotly followed by NYC’s BigApps. Britain is following suit realising releasing government data online will not only make central and local authorities more transparent, but also that inviting data developers to make good visualisation and tools will allow citizens to get the information they want in a way which is helpful.

Ways of Seeing Art of Data

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