The Beautiful Side
of Data

Numbers that represent information can really change your perception of the world

Everything around us can be abstracted mathematically, distilled down and represented with numbers. 1 With those numbers you can calculate. And those numbers and calculations you can represent in new ways to make relationships visible that before have been obstructed from our view.

If you go a step further and present those numbers in a beautiful way you can even engage people in topics they were not interested in before. And you can even discover new and interesting connections.

The world we are living in is expansive and complex. The majority of human built systems are intertwined and it is no longer possible to untangle them. This can often lead to a few organizations controlling vital “choke points of data”. 2

This is especially critical, because who controls the data can also select which numbers will be represented, leading to statistics that can really be skewed in one or the other direction, depending on who publishes the information. When you are working with numbers you can always bend them to your will.

Making the abstract and invisible visible

The biggest challenge in getting the information across is to make it understandable to a regular person who has no background in statistics or the field the information is about. On top of that, by transforming data into graphics one has to be extra careful to not be too ambiguous, especially when dealing with complex information.

We have so much detail in our daily life and the world that surrounds us, but only few people really look at these details. Most of us don’t even have the capacity to process all this data. Everyone leaves a data trail by what we are doing and instead of discovering the hidden meaning of this data that we produce we leave this to the big corporations creating a lot of wealth from our data trails. Instead we should start to take stock of our this data that surrounds us and see if we can distil it to something useful for information, entertainment or education purposes.

The ultimate goal is to create a visualization that as much people as possible can understand with the least amount of detail. All being neatly visualized for education purposes.

Data analysis reveals Mysteries

Getting into the weeds of data analysis can be really intriguing. By uncovering hidden patterns and correlations you will be surprised by the insights you will find that can fuel your drive for further discovery.

The same data set can be approached from different angles and developed into different representations that can tell totally different stories. This shows the main problem that a lot of companies (or data owners) still face: Simply having the data available does not mean that you can automatically extract useful information from that.

Visualising relationships

Then of course there is the topic of visualizing relationships. Most of us do not have the ability to imagine what the numbers in a simple chart represent in the real world. Especially when it comes to large numbers. We see those numbers, but we can’t figure out what that number actually means or how much bigger it is compared to some other number. What is missing is a relationship. Simple bar charts or pie charts can already help with this. But to really feel the hidden meaning of those numbers and what they represent in the real world it helps to go a step further.

For example consider the representation of annual suicides. Publishing the number of yearly suicides as a bar chart in a newspaper is a sad moment when you read it. But imagine a large plaza where each individual who has taken their live is represented as a telephone cell, signifying a call that could have helped, the consequences become more tangible and terrifying. Because the numer is visualized on a more human readable level. And not only that, but the number is taken out from the paper or screen, where it was just a statistic, and has been brought into the real world of the spectator. It is now represented in 1 to 1 on the world scale. This means our own body is the reference in relation to what is displayed making it very impactful and immediately understandable. Seeing the numbers arranged on a screen or on a paper is much less impactful.

Of course, it is of not possible or even practical to bring statistics out into the real world like that except for the occasional art installation. But it shows that a visualization that ventures beyond bar charts and pie charts has their merits and can take on a whole different narrative. Especially when the numbers are represented in an interactive 3D space where the spectators can react and interact with those numbers.

Interactive Visualization

Interactive visualization is suited really well to communicating data3. The main disadvantage of representing data in a static form is that too much data has to be represented and thus too much information is visually present. This makes it in most cases very hard to grasp and understand that data. For a lot of data visualizations you have to take a lot of time to read, interpret and understand them. Because even when a good, concise legend is present and everything is legible it often requires a lot of effort on behalf of the spectator to decode everything.

Interactive visualizations on the other hand have the advantage that they do not have to display everything at once and instead can dispense with their knowledge a little more slowly. The visualization can be explored by the spectator on their own time. Maybe they have a certain interest and want to explore deep in a certain direction. Or maybe they just want to get a general overview first. Because not all data has to be present at the same time this kind of visualization can contain much more datapoints enabling a more complete view.

Data visualization in interactive 3d worlds

If we go a step further into the realm of 3d we can imagine a lot of advantages for immersive and visual storytelling of data. Because of the cost to produce this kind of visualization it is not really practical for most cases, but it remains a highly attractive option.

Especially in regard to the possibilities of digitally enhanced education in school. In the school environment, despite a lot of digital equipment, we still have static images. But instead of looking at static printed images in books the students are looking at static images on websites.

An interesting project in this direction is the Assassin’s Creed Discovery Tour4. This is a project by Ubisoft that enables their videogame series to be used as an interactive education tool by removing the fantasy elements and instead augmenting the game with educational and factual historical content. In this way the Game can be used as a tool for education that does so much more than a textbook or a film good ever do.

Numbers as Art

Data visualization has grown over the last years into it’s own contemporary artform with a participatory element blending the realms of mathematics, numerology, illustration and visual arts. This is aided by the inherent mathematical beauty, because certain equations, or numbers (like π, e, or the Fibonacci sequence) hold an intrinsic beauty due to their properties, symmetry, or the truths they represent to us about the universe.

Generative Art

The term that has become more associated with ChatGPT and the like over the last years has long been one of the core pillars of data visualization. Generative art involves algorithms and parametric computer programs that incorporate quasi-random or procedurally generated imagery based on numerical inputs. The artist creates those systems by creating the rules that the computer follows. This results in a kind of dialogue with the machine, because the computer is restricted by those rules in what it can produce and the unforeseen visuals that are created by the computer lead to new discoveries and directions that the artist may take, possibly resulting in revised rules, starting this circle anew indefinitely until a final image is produced.

Sometimes these types of data visualization venture far into the realm of art, that their use as an informative tool becomes secondary or even gets lost completely. Some artists even use the datasets or numbers conceptually, where the idea behind the data is more important than its visual representation.

Data Activism

“Big Data” has a monopoly on monetizing our data. The [[anti-social-media]] Giants and “Big Tech” corporations earn millions by commercializing our collective data trails. ChatGPT is the best example, because it contains large swathes of content from the known internet that we have published in parts willingly and in parts unknowingly. But once something has been added to the Internet there is not really a going back. [[the-internet-does-not-forget]].

Therefore it is crucial to educate and learn about our data trails and what information can be gleaned from there. Not just because of protecting ourselves. Maybe we can even learn something useful about ourselves or for our day to day lives. Only by learning how these structures are built and used, we can imagine what might lie outside of them and have it work in our favour.

Data itself is a powerful tool for activism. It provides a factual basis to help us construct and protect our arguments for calls to action and helps us to highlight and tackle issues. But even this evidence based approach has been under threat in recent years.

What the data is really showing

Is data really objective? Does it inform you about or does it prejudice you? A lot of people seem to intuitively believe more into “objective” data and statistics. But what most people forget when doing so is that those statistics or data visualizations always display slices and fragments of the actual raw data. Oftentimes those slices have been carefully curated by the person who transformed the data set into a visualization. Even simple Bar Charts or curves are often misleading. You always have to be really careful when looking at a data visualization and think about what the data is really showing, what data probably has been omitted and what the motivation of the person or institute was for creating this visualization. Why did they choose the particular representation? What story can the same data possibly tell when the representation is changed?

Anything that truly informs people to be able to make better decisions is an excellent tool. But oftentimes the objective neutrality of data that publishing outlets proclaim is misleading. Data only appears to be emotionless, but it never is.

But this is not necessarily bad, some topics simply are not neutral5. For example a bar chart that displays the number of sexually abused children just looks like nothing. Such a fact should not leave you feeling neutral. You should be outraged.

The Outlook

By approaching data with an eye for beauty, a sense of mystery, and a spirit of activism, individuals and organizations can use it to inform, inspire, and instigate change.


[Hans Rosling - TED Talk](