#bdw12 Andy Kirk: visualising the journey


This is a interview with Andy Kirk from Visualisingdata.com, as part of the Big Data Week Interview series.

For many, what is known as “data visualisation” is a relatively new phenomenon. Deriving from a virtuous circle of the familiarity of Excel and the ability to create sophisticated graphics from a mass-market computer, the concept is becoming increasingly engrained into popular culture. Where visualsing data was once the domain of the Open University after midnight on BBC2, it’s now prevalent across newspapers (often in double-page spreads) and, of course, in the hyper-realism of television news.

There are many theoretical ingredients involved in the production data visualisation. One is, of course, the ability to produce clear, understandable graphical forms. Another is to have a reasonable grasp of statistics and inter-relationships. Other, more business-like ingredients such as information management and business analysis is where we find Andy Kirk: data visualisation consultant, trainer, designer, and the man behind Visualising Data: a blog which brings together contemporary dataviz matters, good finds, and upcoming events.

Kirk’s background in business and management gave him a solid foundation for understanding how data should be interrogated and presented, although the contemporary concept of data visualisation was still unknown to him. That changed when he visited Stephen Few’s Perceptual Edge website, by chance, in 2006. As Kirk says, “…this was my career ‘eureka’ moment.” Since then, he has immersed himself in dataviz theory and practice, leading to the creation of the Visualsing Data website four years later.

The explosion of dataviz has irritated some of the more orthodox producers and consumers of the concept, who feel that a mass ability to visualise data through computers does not lend itself to keeping up a high standard of visualisations. This does not particularly irk Kirk. “… Any design discipline will have its pyramid of quality. Exposure to poor quality only helps to appreciate better quality. The quantity of data visualisation and/or infographic works is certainly increasing, and that can only be a good thing for the subject, because it means more people are interested in it.” By this, one might expect specific data visualisation studies to become more prevalent over time; there is no reason why, for example, that someone should not be able to study for a degree in data visualisation if the concept becomes increasingly understood and demanded by the market.

While we are in a whirlwind of interest regarding dataviz, let’s remind ourselves that we are still very much at the beginning. Kirk clearly agrees. ”There is a long way to go until we have a proliferation of quality practice taking place across all organisations.

Whereas once it was a discipline on the fringes, everyone is now touched by a responsibility for data – whether it is [for] analysis or presentation. Right now, people are getting by with instinct and taste, but as more an more take up the opportunity to learn about data visualisation techniques, we will see a real change over the next few years.

As this change occurs, we’ll see publishers increasingly drawing issues together in order to provide interesting ways to engage readers and to add value to stories. Kirk points out that, in his view, it’s the job of the designer to understand data visualisation – not the reader. However, he feels that many of the more innovative deployments of data visualisation are simply not being designed in a way to make their subject matter accessible, and helping to make readers feel better informed. If this is indeed an issue with dataviz, it will need to be sorted out. “Engagement is being achieved on an aesthetic and ‘cool features’ level, but we still need to move the idea of ‘interesting’ past visual or technical novelty.” The process, as dataviz designer Stefanie Posavec recently said, is as important as the outcome; Kirk feels that data visualisation is no different in terms of the choices and reasoning inherent in the design process. How designers transform data into stunning, clear insights, “… is a fascinating process that should always be shared.”

So, the future is bright – if it needs to be managed a little more. As touch interfaces such as on tablets make interaction and interrogation even more accessible, visualisation processes will increasingly address the requirements of hardware. Kirk is enthusiastic about what the future entails here; a widespread, increased access to more physical interfaces can only increase the understanding of what data visualisation is, and is capable of.  “We are still at the early stages of working out the potential opportunities that might exist, but it won’t be too long until we have many examples of innovative success stories.” We’re sure to see many of those captured on Kirk’s own site, including many from his own enthusiastic and talented self.

Andy Kirk’s website Visualising Data contains further infromation on his training and consultancy services, as well as a regular blog, commenting on data visualisation issues and news. He is @visualisingdata on Twitter..

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