Having sat through hundreds of product demos and pitches himself over the years — at TechCrunch and the now defunct Business 2.0 before that — you could understand if Erick Schonfeld has been itching for a little payback. Or at least saving a few good ideas for himself.
Here’s one idea that Schonfeld (who’s been keeping busy with a number of digital media projects since leaving TechCrunch in February) quietly pitched last week that deserves some attention and perhaps funding — a platform and tool set that publishers can use to create killer infographics and data visualizations. By killer, I mean interactive graphics built with searchable, dynamic content, rendered from live databases — not the static, screen-eating, status-quo “infographics” that have lately become the subject of mass ridicule.
“The Ultimate Data Viz Platform,” as Schonfeld calls it, is one of the timelier entries in the Knight Foundation’s annual Knight News Challenge. The contest funds breakthrough ideas in public media — in this case, Knight is seeking “ways of collecting, understanding, visualizing and helping the public use the large amounts of information generated each day.”
As Schonfeld explains in his pitch, he wants to build an open-source tool set within reach of any blogger, editor, student, or publisher. How? ”First, we will create a library of interactive chart templates, which can be expanded and contributed to by others. By creating templates, we will make it possible to produce high-quality data visualizations in an efficient, repetitive fashion which can be embedded anywhere. We will also connect existing databases and work with data providers to offer a growing menu of chartable data sets geared towards journalists. Journalists will be able to bring their own data, but over time they will be able to find more of what they need baked into the platform.”
Knight is judging all the entries, and will announce the winners — which will receive shares of an overall $5 million in funding — in September. Intrigued? As an editor who’s wrestled with creating infographics from every angle, I asked Erick for more detail — starting with what problem he’s hoping to solve. Here are a few highlights from our interview:
Why are so many infographics so terrible?
There are many reasons. Many of them don’t actually convey information that well at all. They are formulaic. They try to cram too much information into a single “poster” and often sacrifice clarity and readability for artful design. What kills me is that since most of them are flat image files, the information inside them is invisible to search — which means that it is invisible to a large swath of the internet.
Infographics are too expensive or laborious to produce on a regular basis for most news sites or blogs, so they end up being produced instead by marketing departments or PR agencies. Smart marketers try to make them interesting, but most see them as just another form of viral marketing. The resulting infographics end up being skewed by that perspective.
Media sites tend to give mediocre infographics a free pass because they’re reliable traffic magnets. But why do so many smart readers share content that can often be confusing, misleading, or flat-out wrong?
We are visual creatures. We respond to visual stimuli. It is baked into our DNA. We know we can absorb a lot in a single glance when we are looking at pictures and charts. Displaying data visually can be very effective when done well, and we crave that “aha” moment that only comes around once every 100 infographics.
What got you interested in pursuing this through the Knight Challenge?
I’ve been thinking a lot about digital media and how it can be better than print or TV, or even what we have now on the web. One thing that struck me is that there really isn’t an easy way to create interactive charts the way you can create flat charts with Excel. You should be able to pump in your data and out comes an interactive chart. Or better yet, you should be able to connect to existing data and see it in chart form. And you should be able to pull a few of these charts together into an “infographic.”
I looked around and determined that to do what I want it to do, I would have to build a system myself. So might as well build it for everybody. I suspect most people who publish news want this capability. Today, every chart and infographic needs to be custom built by hand. When you get into more complicated data visualizations, those can take days or weeks to produce. When you are publishing news on the web, you don’t have that much time and you probably don’t have an art department. Publishers need tools to turn data into compelling visuals quickly and cheaply. It is certainly something I want.
The Knight Challenge appeals to me because I think all online media organizations and bloggers could benefit and the public at large would benefit from better ways to understand data. It is also something that a small team could accomplish.
Visal.ly and others are taking a crack at the same problem — building tools to create data narratives. How would your project go about this differently?
None of them have cracked it yet, at least not with their products that are publicly available today. But I’d love to work with them. If they can build better visualization tools, great. What I am proposing is truly a platform that brings together the visualization tools with the data. The hard part is getting the data. The platform will connect those two worlds. It is not a bring-your-own-data model, although we will support that as well.
I watched one guy this morning looking at an infographic on an iPhone. He was pinching the screen to zoom in and read some of the data — then he toggled over to email and typed in some of the data to send to someone — in other words, insane. Will mobile be at the forefront of your efforts?
Yes, these must work on mobile phones and tablets, which means HTML5 — no Flash. When you see these things, you will want to touch the data.
Who, if anyone, is doing data viz the right way? Any models out there worth watching?
Visual.ly, Infogr.am, Vizualize.me, Tableau Software. They are all pushing the ball forward in their own way. But the missing element is tapping into the actual databases.
If you don’t land the funding for this, will you pursue via other investment sources?
I haven’t decided yet. I will pursue it up to a point. If someone else wants to fund it they should contact me.