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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Connecting Infographics, MapStories and Just Plain Stories

Before we started using the term infographics (a merging of "information" and "graphics") I guess we just called such things graphics. Graphics were used to communicate complex ideas in a compact, accessible form. Maps are but one type of infographic. Today infographic has a very precise meaning, one described this way in Wikipedia:
2005–Present day. The information graphic trend starts to become popular amongst the larger social media aggregation sites Digg Reddit. The data contained in modern info graphics tends to be research centric and attributed to multiple sources.With the popularity of the information graphics continuing to grow, see google search trends, many internet marketing companies use this to generate viral content that web users will share freely.
I’m sure most regular Web users have run into today’s infographics. Here’s an example referenced in a geospatial blog I read. As the definition suggests, the goal of this one is more about viral linking and search engine optimization rather than the information itself. The source: MBAOnline.com. I got about three quarters the way through before I got bored. How far did you get?

Now, this example is not all bad. The infographic has a thesis at the top which I’d summarize as "we must overcome those who are using patents for evil." The infographic details the nature of the evil with lots of cartoon characters and numbers but only a few actual visual tools: bar graphs, scaled symbols, a line graph, and a map. Then, at the very bottom is the answer to how to end the evil (a question the graphic did not pose, nor support with the data above): end software patents. While the data presented does suggest the current system is probably not working as we might like it to, the final conclusion is a leap.

Infographics are a hot topic in education and have been covered this year at the New York Times and Edutopia. Moreover, this idea of illustrating or even telling a story via graphics is being reborn in the GIS industry with Esri’s efforts in turning ArcGIS Explorer into a presentation tool and the emerging effort called MapStories. The one thing missing, I think, in so many of the colorful infographics like the one above: there is no story. A pile of raw data, even illustrated by a pile of bar charts, are meaningless without the story. Remember Al Gore’s slide show about climate change that became the film An Inconvenient Truth? The data and the graphics meant little without the story and the storyteller. (I heard the story at a GIS conference in 2007 from Dr. Richard Luli, a fellow trained by Gore.)

Why are the stories missing? Perhaps our story telling techniques are weak. I use the term "story" here both in the sense of a non-fiction story revealed by scientific data and a fiction story with an inciting incident, conflict, a climax and a resolution? (Yes, I paid close attention in Mr. Miller’s 7th grade English class.) As educators approach infographics as resources and tackle graphic literacy, we need to think about stories. When students explore existing infographics the questions might include: What is the story of the infographic? What is it trying to tell the viewer? When creating an infographic, the question to students reverses: What story do you want to tell? How can you illustrate the data to tell that story?

Resource: There are some great tips on the Eloqua blog about creating a great infographic.