“Tight-fitting dresses and data-viz” - Anna Powell-Smith at Hacks/Hackers London

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 12 July 2012

Anna Powell-Smith was talking to the Hacks/Hackers London group about her experience of having a small service she’d built gain lots of national press attention. Her idea - “What size am I?” - is a service that compares the different standard sizes in High Street stores to help you understand why you might be a size 10 in one place, and a size 14 in another.

[Incidentally, my first ever paid job was as a cloth-cutter in a skirt factory for BHS, and I suspect some of the vagueness in women’s clothes sizes also comes from having untrained idiots like me measuring the fabric]

Anna had also worked on a tool for graphing the popularity of different baby names over the years - the kind of thing that leads the Daily Express to trumpet that “the Fuzzy-Wuzzies are coming” every year by fixing the figures.

Anna said that she had basically built these services as “an advert for myself, to show what I could do.” I’m a big advocate of this approach. I think that whether you are a hack or a hacker, it has never been easier, provided you are doing something good, to get noticed digitally.

Her talk then gave a list of ten things she thought separated a good data visualisation likely to get attention, from one that might languish unloved on the web. Some of her tips were less serious than others - she claimed that building a service that could be illustrated with pictures of women in tight-fitting dresses was a key factor in the press popularity of “What size am I?”

Four points stood out for me.

Tell stories

Anna stressed how important it was to tell stories with interactives and visualisations. She started off doing an English degree, and said that we “experience our lives through stories.” It is a recurring theme when people talk at Hacks/Hackers on this kind of topic - that leaving the user floundering around with lots of knobs and sliders and buttons to twiddle on an infographic is all very well and good, but if you aren’t telling them a story then why are they going to do it at all?

She cited a New York Times visualisation of student debt - it allowed you to put in the figures about your life and locate yourself within the story. You can tell a big story, she said, by allowing the person to experience their own small story through the data.

Tell pretty stories

Design is important. People, she said, judge the aesthetic of a website within three seconds without verbalising it, and she showed a couple of interactives on screen which had fascinating data behind them, but which hadn’t gained traction partly, she said, because they had no design component.

If you are not naturally inclined towards having design skills, she suggested, there are plenty of tools on the web to help you along. Bootstrap, colour scheme designer and Typekit were all ways of getting a decent grid and typographical approach to your website. She also recommended Scott Murray’s tutorials on using D3.js, a JavaScript framework that manipulates data.

It has to work on mobile

40% of the traffic on day one of “What size am I?” came from mobile devices. So make sure your app or interactive works cross-browser and cross-platform.

Be ethical

Anna subscribed to the view that there should be some kind of Hippocratic Oath for data visualisation. Again this is a common theme - you shouldn’t be using data and statistics to spin stories and mislead the audience. The Visual.ly service has a code of ethics, and Simon Rogers of the Guardian’s Datablog recommends everybody should read Darrell Huff’s “How to lie with statistics” book.


Also talking at the last Hacks/Hackers London was legendary journalist Duncan Campbell, telling his tales of a long battle with the British government over surveillance techniques and secrecy. I’ll have my notes on that in due course...

Hacks/Hackers London: Notes from the talks brings together notes from 16 talks, including those from Martin Rosenbaum, Stephen Grey, Alastair Dant, Scott Byrne-Fraser and Wendy Grossman. It looks at topics of interest to journalists and programers alike, including freedom of information, processing big data sets to tell stories, social activism hack camps, the future of interactive technologies, and using social media to cover your tracks - or uncover those of somebody else.
Hacks/Hackers London: Notes from the talks for Kindle is £1.14.

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