Uncovering the Mystery of Blockchain in 2 Minutes

By: Trevor Brown, Senior Project Manager

blockchain

So Blockchain…what is it? Let’s start with what it isn’t. The term is tossed around quite a bit, as it relates to Bitcoin, on sites such as The Silk Road. Blockchain, at least in some circles, seems to be synonymous with nefarious activities and shady online personas,  but that shouldn’t be the case. Blockchain technology, in all of its forms, has many reasonable and perfectly legitimate business, government, academic, and social applications. So while Bitcoin certainly uses Blockchain technology, that particular cryptocurrency is a very small example of the overall power of Blockchain.  

Now, what IS Blockchain? Most of the time, people are talking about distributed ledgers, i.e. a list of transactions that is shared among a number of computers, rather than being stored on a central server. A decent working definition is “a distributed database that maintains a continuously-growing list of data records hardened against tampering and revision,” according to The Economist.     

Confused yet? Yeah, the concept, and the underlying technology, can each be a bit obtuse. Let’s use an example to illustrate:

I think one of the best commercial applications would be an aggregated rewards program, maintained in a closed Blockchain system by a series of horizontal industries that do not compete in a direct manner, but rather share many clients across a spectrum. The rewards, we’ll call them “MagaPoints” for simplicity, would be used to buy services at all participants. Picture a car rental company, a national coffee chain, an airline, and a hotel chain.  

One customer will likely use this collection of services during a single trip, whether for business or leisure. So within the confines of the closed network, a client could use their rewards points from a coffee purchase to upgrade a flight or use the rewards points from a car rental to acquire a hotel room.   

The client has ease of transaction, without having to juggle multiple rewards programs, while having peace of mind, knowing that at no time was their personal information utilized. Therefore, saving them from exposure to identify theft or fraud. The entire transaction, and all of its parts, are stored in an open public forum, allowing for a seamless transaction that was 100% transparent.

The storage functionality of Blockchain is literally without limit. It could store your car title, the information on postal packages, or your bank records – just to mention a few uses. Because the technology is stored on a decentralized ledger that is accessible to nearly everyone, each of those would be nearly tamper-proof. This is because changes to the ledger are added instantly and are accessible by any user. So where does it go now? The technology has endless possibilities across data storage, monetary transfer, government transparency, and more. I say embrace it and enjoy the ride…

Our 5 Favorite New York Times Visualizations

Given the many problems facing traditional publishing, old-fashioned newspapers like the New York Times have had to adapt to keep up. One way the NYT has done this is to experiment with stories online that change depending on viewer input, allowing readers to, in part, shape the stories they’re reading.

This has taken many forms, from simple infographics and data maps to complex human interest stories with videos and moving images that appear upon scrolling. Here are five of our favorites. Feel free to share yours in the comments!

1. Mapping Migration in the United States (image)

1This “Voronoi treemap” shows how many people living in a particular state were born there, following on from this interactive article showing population changes by state. And it does it in style, with eye-catching, colorful shapes depicting each percentage. As the article points out, one drawback is that the shapes don’t always match the percentages exactly, but overall, this kind of chart is a solid choice. It also lends itself well to certain kinds of financial data.

2. How the Recession Reshaped the Economy, in 255 Charts (see image here)

2255 is a big number, especially when it comes to charts. Nobody wants to sit through a presentation with 255 slides or graphs. But somehow, this visualization makes it work. Combining and overlaying graphs is not a new concept, but by overlapping so many lines in one image, overall patterns and trends emerge that might not have been visible on their own.

Combining so many graphs might be ill-advised in most situations, but careful overlapping keeps each line separate and visible. Additionally, scrolling causes overlays to appear that explain various trends in housing, healthcare, and other fields, highlighting related graphs. This puts each industry into context in a creative, visual, visceral way and drives the enormity of the economy home in a way that separate graphs might not.

3. Up Close on Baseball’s Borders (image)

3This fun visualization puts Facebook data to good use to settle a few perennial questions: where, exactly, does the line between Yankees fans and Red Sox fans lie? And how big are the disputed territories? By using an algorithm to smooth out data for how many people in a particular zip code “liked” a particular team on social media, this nifty little image was born, no doubt settling a few bets along the way.

4. In Georgia, Politics Moves Past Just Black and White (full article here)

4How do you map the changing face of a city? In this story, a simple population map comparing the demographics of Atlanta, Georgia in 1990 to its makeup in 2010 drives the image home. With simple interactivity highlighting particular counties, this visualization provides clear data, grounding a complex piece highlighting the new diversity in the Old South.

5. Norway, the Slow Way (read story)

5For something completely different, this human-interest travel piece on one person’s quest for the Midnight Sun uses video of the Norwegian coastline, excerpts from Norwegian TV programs, hand-drawn graphs illustrating relatively minor points, and charming animated maps to bring its story to life. Are they completely necessary? No. But they are delightful moments that change the pace of a long story, maintaining interest and inviting reflection.

In a story that is so much about pace and the visual details of Norway’s culture, these moving and interactive images contain more than a thousand words. They set the stage as well as dress it and guide us along the narrative in a way that words alone might not have accomplished. Scrolling almost seems too clunky a way to navigate the wonders of sea, sun, and land as it is presented here.

Data is often used to bolster arguments, clarify complex issues, or settle disagreements. Visualizations can be beautiful enough to be art. But used properly, data – in the form of graphs, maps, or images – can also tell a story, the bottom line that unites each of these articles.

How can you use interactive visualizations to tell your story in a more engaging way?

Beyond Data Visualization: Using Interactivity to Engage Your Audience

"Building Blocks," by Chris Jordan, is an art piece that uses scale to depict the annual number of highschool dropouts in the US.
“Building Blocks,” by Chris Jordan, is an art piece that uses alphabet blocks to depict the annual number of highschool dropouts in the US (click for the full image).

Numbers and statistics are a vital part of any modern data-driven business—or personal life. But unfortunately, simply shouting numbers from the rooftop doesn’t tend to change peoples’ minds.

There are too many alternative stories and interpretations (not to mention distractions) competing for an audience’s attention to allow one little piece of information to reshape a worldview.

There are lots of ways to overcome the problem of distraction: using engaging visuals and good design, finding a catchy “hook,” and answering an interesting question are all good places to start.

But once you’ve figured out how to overcome the distractions that may prevent your viewers from thinking about your data, it’s time to go deeper and find ways to connect with your audience. If they feel a connection with your data, they’ll be much more likely to integrate it into their thinking.

Theater of the Mind

The human mind is extremely powerful. It can impose structure, stories, and patterns on seemingly unconnected things, resulting in new insights. If your data supports a conclusion your audience already believes, you’re in luck!

The brain’s natural systems will sort the data into its rightful place. But if your audience is predisposed to disagree with your data, the brain will work overtime to resolve this “cognitive dissonance”—usually by dismissing the new, uncomfortable information.

It’s important to ease your audience in if you’re proposing a new or controversial idea. Letting your audience connect the dots themselves is an easy way to engage their pattern-finding specialties, so that the brain’s power works for you.

If you seem to be having trouble “getting through” with your data, especially if you’re pretty sure it has a clear message, invite your audience to participate in the interpretation of your data using things like interactivity, guesswork, the five senses, and rewards for engagement.

Interactivity

Scroll Down

See the “scroll down” instruction at the bottom? Click to visit the site and see what happens!

Interactivity is much more than a buzzword. It’s a way to involve viewers in the story, letting them fill in the pieces and take ownership of the information. Data on its own can feel preachy or high-handed, but if you let your audience tell the story and then suggest ways to fill in the gaps, they will be much more willing to process the information.

Good forms of interactivity make the user feel in control.

This site, which proposes “an alternative view of London,” tells the viewer to “scroll down,” which seems like a simple, common request. But in this case, scrolling triggers animations, drawings, and photos instead of a simple “page down,” and this surprising response to a common action piques viewer interest because their actions had a clear, interesting impact on what they saw on the screen.

Interactive presentations like the Gapminder World graph accomplish the same thing by encouraging viewers to ask and answer their own questions by comparing axes, making the audience feel in control.

Guesswork

If you really want your viewers to think about a problem, ask them to guess what the data will look like before you give it to them. Suddenly, they have a vested interest in an abstract problem, because they want to know how close they got to the “right” answer.

As this New York Times article illustrated, guesswork can be a good, friendly way to invite your audience to reconsider their assumptions, especially if many people make the same mistakes.

Encourage your audience to brainstorm reasons they might have missed the mark together, rather than telling them the answer right away. People are much more willing to listen to ideas they came up with themselves!

Speak to the Senses

If your data will be viewed on a computer, it’s easier than ever to engage viewer senses. Sound (make sure it’s optional!), movement (especially animation and video), and even engagement through touch are all possible using today’s technology.

Birds

This art piece depicts the number of birds killed by agricultural products every day in the United States. It zooms out on the website to show the scale of the problem (click to view the full image).

If you have a chance to put together a presentation in the real world, the options are endless. You can play with scale to make a big impact as in the artwork by Chris Jordan, or have viewers physically participate in a display.

Reward Engagement

Whatever route you take to increase engagement, remember that if you want repeat visits, you need to reward that engagement.

Every click, every scroll of the mouse wheel, every action taken by the viewer should correspond to a clear and obvious reward—more information, an interesting sound byte, or an unexpected animation.

How you tie it to your message is up to you!

5 Ways to Let Your Data Tell the Story

People love stories. It’s the way our brains are wired. That’s why anecdotes are such powerful tools of persuasion.

If I tell you a story about a friend who got mugged a few years ago in a big city, all the statistics in the world about how crime rates are falling probably won’t convince you it’s safe.

Personal experience matters more to our brains than numbers.

Data is about facts, not stories, and that often makes it seem boring (and, ironically, unconvincing). Our brains just aren’t very good at handling large amounts of data to evaluate things like risk. They need a narrative to hold all the pieces together.

If you want your data to be convincing, you have to let it tell a story. Of course, it’s important that the data guides the story and not the other way around.

But if you want the numbers to stick, you have to weave them into a framework that will anchor all the pieces together and make them persuasive.

Here are five places to start when you’re looking for the story in your data (examples from this post on creativebloq).

  1. Make a Comparison

1aClick to see the full infographic.

Isolated data is boring—it’s comparisons that tell the story. Are sales up compared to last month? Are there spiders on planet earth than people? Put the comparison front-and-center if you want it to stand out, whether you’re preparing a slide deck, a presentation, or an infographic.

Comparisons also help people engage because most people already have an opinion. Setting up a comparison brings peoples’ existing opinions into play and invites them to take a position and then see if it’s backed up by the data.

  1. Encourage Curiosity

Data is beginning to answer questions we never even used to ask. Questions are a natural hook for people’s attention and feed into existing stories by offering additional information.

Think about all the questions wearables have started making people ask. What is my heartrate when I’m running rather than sitting? How many steps am I taking each day?

1bFitbit started this infographic with an interesting question—at least, interesting to fitness buffs.

Encourage questioning before you get to the answer, and explain why the question matters if it’s one people may not have considered before.

Pique their curiosity before explaining the answer, because once you’ve got people thinking and wondering, the data will start to make sense before you’ve even presented a single number.

  1. Draw Conclusions

1cWhich format is better for web and which for print? If you read to the end, this infographic spells it out.

Don’t make viewers hunt for your point. Conclusions should emerge naturally from the data, but they should also be clearly present. Data is only as useful as the conclusions we draw from it.

You don’t have to hit your audience over the head with it, but if the data strongly lends itself to a point of view (our current policy isn’t working; there’s a big opportunity emerging in a new sector; we are headed for catastrophe), say it!

1dMake sure the conclusion follows the data, but don’t be afraid to draw that conclusion!

  1. Track the History

Showing changes over time can be a powerful way to organize your data and allow for breakthrough insights. It puts information in context and tells a linear story, the same way we experience everyday life.

It’s an easy narrative structure for people to grasp.

1eThis chart is a bit complicated, but it follows an easily-deciphered logical structure and guides the viewer through the map using elegant lines.

  1. Find the Missing Piece (or Bring the Pieces Together)

1fThis infographic puts all the pieces together when it comes to energy efficiency.

If your data fills a gap in existing knowledge, it’s like putting the last puzzle piece in place—a very satisfying feeling. Set the stage with the existing data, and then show the missing component.

Explain why that piece of information was so difficult to obtain. Alternatively, for complicated topics, break them down into easily-digestible pieces that bring individual pieces into a cohesive whole.

Whatever your data, finding engaging ways to turn it into a story will make it more memorable, easily digestible, and even more convincing.

5 Data Visualization Blogs You Will Fall In Love With

If you work in graphic design or any sort of visual communication field, you’re intimately familiar with terms like data visualization, information design and big data.

It’s easy to forget that most people don’t really know what this stuff is. Truth is, data visualization is still a new discipline.

But it’s working its way into a bunch of different fields, and the world of information design is getting more exposure everyday.

That’s why we love any blog that’s dedicated to sharing data viz tools and tips – or just beautiful examples of data design in action.

There are so many awesome information design blogs, but these are our five favorites (in no particular order):

1. Flowing Data

Why We Love It: This blog goes way beyond posting pictures of infographics. It’s full of awesome data-driven projects like multivariate beer brewing and mapping the most popular races by country.

Favorite Post: The Subway sandwich map takes the cake (or hoagie). It shows just how much Subway is dominating the sandwich game in America.

Subway Sandwich Domination

Nothing against Subway but, for the record, we’re partial to the sandwiches at So’s Your Mom (not just because it’s across the street from our office).

2. Visualising Data

You might be thinking that we spelled “visualising” wrong, but this is how they spell it across the pond in the UK, where freelance data guru and blogger Andy Kirk resides.

Why We Love It: Andy uses a bubble chart to display his top 100 most popular posts. Talk about practicing what you preach!

Visualising Data top posts

Favorite Post: It’s hard to pick just one, but this post about using grey in your visualizations is a must-read.

3. Information is Beautiful

Why We Love It: Because, like founder David McCandless, we think that information should be designed in a way that is useful – above all else. We don’t share David’s hatred for pie charts, although we do love pie.

Favorite Post: We’re fans of the Best in Show dog data chart. It uses orientation, size, shape and color to pack a ton of data in a small space.

Best in Show dog infographic

Plus it confirms our belief that Chauncey is, in fact, a “hot dog”.

4. Cool Infographics

Why We Love It: Truth be told, we think the term “infographic” has lost its luster over the past few years, mostly because the web has been flooded with infographics that often leave something to be desired.

But, Cool Infographics is a very cool blog run by a guy who loves data viz just as much as we do – Randy Krum.

Our Favorite Post: Randy recently posted an infographic from Tabletop Whale that teaches you how to make animated infographics (meta, we know). In a saturated market, bringing your infographic to life with animated GIFs is one surefire way to stand out.

Animated Infographic

How cool is that?

4. Infosthetics

Why We Love It: First off, Infosthetics is an awesome name for a blog. Second, this site has a vast archive data visualizations, from charts about dissapearing amphibians to urban math art.

Pi visualized

Our Favorite Post: We think that Carlo Zapponi‘s interactive GitHut map is fascinating. It shows the relationships and range of programming languages “used across the repositories hosted on GitHub”.

GitHut

We’re still dissecting what exactly that means, but this visualization sure is fun to play with.

5. Chart Porn

Last but certainly not least, Chart Porn is one of our favorite curated collections of beautiful maps, charts and graphics.

Why We Love It: Partly because it’s run by a fellow Washingtonian, Dustin Smith (yup, we’re biased, but at least we’re aware of it). But also because it helps us discover amazing visualizations that we might otherwise miss.

If you could only read one data viz blog, Chart Porn is a solid option.

Our Favorite Post: If we have to choose just one, this interactive Wizards’ shooting graphic from the Washington Post is it:

Wizards shooting graphic

Beautiful colors, clean design, data driven… plus it’s about the Wizards. Did we mention we’re from DC?

Now you know our top five data visualization blogs. What are yours? Leave a comment below!