Information is beautiful

David McCandless loves pie. And he loves information, too. But he hates pie charts. So, he’s doing something about that. Calling himself a “data journalist” and “information designer,” McCandless has given himself the task of turning facts, data, ideas, issues, statistics and questions into visual information.

Describing himself as “into anything strange and interesting,” he describes his work this way:

I’m interested in how designed information can help us understand the world, cut through BS and reveal the hidden connections, patterns and stories underneath. Or, failing that, it can just look cool!

A look at his website demonstrates McCandless’ skill in combining intellectual curiosity, data and imaginative design. The result of his wide-ranging efforts is Information is Beautiful, a treasure-trove of information that’s presented in often unusual–but highly informative—visualizations. Not one of which is a pie chart.

Among his works is “Mountains Out of Molehills.” In a “chart” [don’t tell him I used that word, please] in which data forms mountain peaks of varying altitudes, McCandless presents a timeline of globally hyped media scare stories from the past decade. Most of the scares concern dire predictions of mass deaths caused by flu, the SARS virus or even “killer Wi-Fi,” and a collision between Earth and a giant asteroid.  You see the duration and intensity of media attention, and the actual outcomes. Information sources are as varied as the topics, and McCandless is scrupulous about crediting other researchers and news sources.

One relatively steep “mountain range” represents media stories from 2005 through 2007 about the “catastrophic threat of bird flu.” In a key below the visualization, McCandless reveals the actual number of bird flu deaths reported by the media: 262. As for that Earth/asteroid collision scare, it creates a low-rise but pesky group of hillocks that persist from 2000 into 2009 [the last year represented in the visualization]. Number of deaths reported as a result of this non-event: 0 [to date].

Time travel in movies and tv

Other non-pie-charts on Information is Beautiful have names like: “When Sea Levels Attack” [a timeline of when various cities could be underwater as ocean levels rise]; “Timelines ” [time travel in popular tv and movies—a mesmerizing, convoluted diagram that’s a mind-bender, even for non-Trekkies]; and “How many nukes would it take to destroy the world” [self-explanatory, but scary]. Information sources are as varied as the topics. Personally, I can’t wait to see what’s next.

McCandless’ work appears in The Guardian, Wired and other publications. A compendium of his data designs, called The Visual Miscellaneum, was published in 2009. I highly recommend his website–but  not if you have a looming deadline at work or school, or an important date.

Gloria Shur Bilchik Gloria Shur Bilchik (471 Posts)

Gloria Shur Bilchik is a freelance writer and community volunteer in St. Louis, Missouri. She is the editor of Occasional Planet. She views the preservation of progressive values as vital to making the US a humane, livable place for her children and grandchildren.