Nov 062013
 

Huge thanks to Tony Hirst (via Peter Burnhill) for flagging up a new set of Infographic Guidelines from the Office for National Statistics. You can read more about the guidelines, and their origins in Matt Juke’s Infographics Superhighway post on the ONS Digital Publishing Blog.

Screen capture from the ONS Infographics Guide

Screen capture from the ONS Infographics Guide (ONS, 2013)

Whilst these guidelines are specifically intended to address the branding needs of the ONS they also address visual storytelling and are a really useful reminder of the importance of conveying clear and useful messages through infographics. Matt Jukes’ post talks about the importance of ensuring that any infographic carrying the ONS logo is credible and uses statistics well. I’d heartily endorse that sentiment for any academic or organisational use of these sorts of visual information, particularly as not all visualisations are created equal.

David McCandless, whose handcrafted visualisation work is highly regarded and tells important stories brilliantly, has received criticism for the accuracy of his depictions. In telling a story it can be hard to represent information as precisely as desired whilst also ensuring the reader knows the key messages, and understands the implications of the data – and of the way the data has been interpreted (the classic example here being the potential bias of map projections for instance). Tools like Textal, Voyant-Tools and visualisations created by City University’s giCentre – and the exciting and highly interactive journal Vectors – are attempting to bridge the gap between beautiful and useful. There are sure to be further initiatives appearing in this direction as the role of visual storytelling becomes better understood and appreciated – and more important in an era of increasingly big data.

I am in the middle of teaching my Social Media module for students on the MSc in Science Communication and Public Engagement at the moment and one of the recurrent themes is the difficulty of getting that balance right between being fun and eye catching and being credible and authoritative.

Infographics and memes (e.g. LOLCATs, the What I think I do/What My Parents Think I do… type images) are a brilliant tool for engaging your audiences if they are done well – analysis of social media sharing and the continued growth of Pinterest confirms that images and video content can make a huge difference to how frequently posts are viewed and shared. However, done poorly they can be misleading and turn off audiences – particularly those that have a longer term relationship with an organisation and value your authoritative status.

One of the things I find fascinating about memes that bubble up – for instance one of the most recent Tumblrs and image memes has been Ryan Gosling Biostatistics (see below) – is the challenging potential they offer. In some ways there could not be a less authoritative or appropriate way to convey information than by creating sharable posters co-opting others’ images but, at the same time,  these are fun mediums and can allow you to juxtapose highly accessible imagery with arcane or inaccessible topics. They are also popular – important if you buy into Henry Jenkins’ “If it doesn’t spread it’s dead” concept – and shows a credibility and understanding of the social media space, for instance the Ryan Gosling Biostatistics meme plays on an already-successful meme, the Ryan Gosling NPR Tumblr.

Screencapture from the Ryan Gosling Biostatistics Tumblr

Screencapture from the Ryan Gosling Biostatistics Tumblr, in this case advertising an American Statistical Society 175th Anniversary event.

The Gosling meme is playful and work well because it relies on the audience’s knowledge and interest in a very specific subject matter. It is also inoffensive unlike some of the popular meme images which relies on racial stereotyping (in imagery and language) for humour. These semi-formal images are perfect for some messages – public health messages can work well in informal spaces for instance, and the Gikii law and technology conference thrives on LOLLamas. But even a great biostatistics meme image is not the sort of imagery appropriate to an organisation as authoritative and formal in it’s brand as the ONS. With social media decisions over the best way to communicate are always a trade off of organisational branding and goals, with your audience/s desires and expectations.

The ONS Infographic guide won’t be right for all organisations/contexts – it is as much about their specific brand guidance as it is about structuring infographics well – but it is a great reminder of the usefulness of guidance, style guides, and of the need to have consistent and accessible organisational approaches to engaging audiences through social media, preferably with strong visual elements.

Useful Links:

Some useful visualisation creation tools:

  • Creately | https://creately.com/ – quick free online flow chart building tool.
  • D3.JShttp://d3js.org/ – for the more code-minded this is a powerful JavaScript library for creating interactive data visualisations.
  • FigShare | http://figshare.com/ – share your research data, including the ability to share and create graphs and visualisations via this innovative site. These are visualisations based on real data so very much fit in with the ONS’ call for quality although you would need to consider how best to turn images and interactives generated into a story for a true infographic.
  • Google Maps | http://maps.google.co.uk/ – Maps are pretty much the original visualisation tool. Tools like EDINA’s own Digimap – and various GIS tools and softwares – enable creation of geospatial visualisations of academic research data, whilst Google Maps offers an accessible option for any map fan to play with. Login, click “My Places”, and “Create Map” or use Google Docs (Insert > Gadget > Add a Gadget > Maps) to create a map.
  • ManyEyes | http://www-958.ibm.com/software/data/cognos/manyeyes/ – a lovely tool for creating visualisations of data that you upload. It takes a while to use well but produces some great visualiations.
  • Prezi | http://prezi.com/ – very engaging flash-based online presentation tool which can also work well for visualisations. Looks great but takes some time to get used to.
  • Textalhttp://www.textal.org/ – like Wordle but designed, by UCL Digital Humanities experts, to enable researchers to create credible visualisations of textual data as well as analysing that text.
  • TimeToast | http://www.timetoast.com/ – create a timeline from your data
  • Simile Widgets | http://www.simile-widgets.org/ – enables you to create a visualisation, timeline or new way to browse your data – you may need to become familiar with some code to use Simile well/successfully.
  • Visual.ly | http://visual.ly/ – free visualisation tools which, whilst mainly used for silly/fun infographics (definitely not ONS appropriate), can be used in more series ways or for informal visualisations and storytelling around your data.
  • Voyant Toolshttp://voyant-tools.org/ – free online interactive visualisations of textual research data. Really useful if your texts are appropriate in terms of IPR and ethics for sharing in this way.
  • Wordle | http://www.wordle.net/ – plugin interview transcripts or other texts for an instant overview of content. Not perfect but a good starting point into data.

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