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When Data About People Becomes Human

Visual data allows for research methods that better fit people’s lifestyles, making data more accessible and authentic.

Have you heard about Dollar Street?  I’m hooked. This fascinating tool visualizes differences and similarities among people and cultures around the world. This elegantly-designed interactive website uses photos of real people to reflect lifestyles on a global level that are easy to compare using filters such as geography and income.

Here’s the background: Swedish researchers sent photographers to snap photos of 264 families from 50 countries, spanning all income levels. The photographers captured up to 135 views (30,000 photos in all) of each family’s everyday life, from how they dress, to common household objects used, such as beds, stoves, cooking utensils, toothbrushes, and wall decor.

Even dreams and aspirational purchases were photographed. For instance, one photo shows that a Zimbabwean hopes to purchase a front door that properly shuts, while an American desires to buy a new smartphone.

With a mission to illuminate people around the world as they are, Dollar Street tells a story about humanity in a visual way. Real people, real stories, backed by large stores of data.

This groundbreaking project puts people at the forefront of the percents they represent on a broad scale. With the recognition that photos reveal what words and analytics alone cannot, the future of storytelling in research becomes more clear.

(Watch Swedish researcher Anna Rosling Ronnlund tell the story of Dollar Street in her TedX Talk: Using photos as data to understand how people live).

For data-driven storytellers, perhaps the work of data visualization pioneer Edward Tufte, the Yale professor of political science, statistics and computer science once dubbed by The New York Times as “the da Vinci of Data” influenced their paths.

Tufte’s four published books on the artful display of statistical data and information (three of which are coffee table books in my home: The Visual Display of Quantitative Visualization, Envisioning Information, and Beautiful Evidence) continue to guide statisticians as well as today’s data scientists, researchers, designers, and marketers on presenting analytics with accuracy and visual appeal. Tufte advocates using form and function to convey data impactfully; his work also inspires an appreciation for the data itself.

In 2013, Tufte added photos to his quant representations. Partnering with a software engineer, Tufte masterminded ImageQuilts, a Chrome extension that creates just what it sounds like – visual data “quilts” from photos saved on our computers or internet pages, revealing patterns in entirely new ways. Speaking for myself, this was the first glimpse of my own photographic data from this lens.

Nowadays, we expect Google search results or online shopping recommendations to offer some type of visual filtering feature. Massive investment and advancements in image analytics and visual discovery technologies no doubt fueled this demand. As a result, information consumers get cranky if data falls short of being fast, cheap, and good. And now, data must be visual, too.

With more than one-third of the world using smartphones (Statista), the need to send photographers into people’s homes to capture lifestyle data is no longer necessary. Smartphones have become a window into consumer worlds, reaching people and places in ways social listening cannot.

As research methods evolve to better fit people’s lifestyles, data becomes more accessible and authentic. Here’s how:

Better engagement: your population is reachable and responsive because they can participate on their terms, easily and unobtrusively.

Transparency: meet your people at the right moment in time, in a show and tell way, on a quantitative scale. The teenage boy taking surveys as his 40-something-year old mom won’t make it into your dataset.

Honest glimpses: see your people as they really live, not as they portray in social channels, in search of truth and opportunity to better meet their needs.

Holistic access: speed understanding and empathy with simplified access to your consumers’ whole lives. Visualized lifestyles and personas bring data to life. 

Memorable stories: visuals and photos convey messages better than a deluge of data and analytics. To this end, KaRene Smith’s IleX talk on “Tell Me a (Visual) Story: Packaging Insights for Your Insights Consumers,” is one presentation that’s not to be missed.

Dollar Street is a simple and visual way to represent data about people. Are you more likely to remember percentages or the stories about people who comprise them?

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