Canada can lead the world with a new art-driven approach to data visualization

The Canadian government is set to frame a new model to support the creation, discovery and export of Canadian content in a digital world. A new federal consultation paper shapes the discussion around three principles: focusing on citizens and creators; reflecting Canadian identities and promoting sound democracy; and catalyzing social and economic innovation. While the ideas presented go a long way forward, they fail to incorporate a sector that is crucial for Canada’s art and economy: data.

We all agree that how we collect data, manage it, use it and disseminate it will determine success. Unless the data is easy to understand, it remains inaccessible and unused. Even governments that keenly promote “open data” recognize the need to move to “open knowledge,” which is what open data becomes when it’s useful, usable and used. Fortunately, innovation in data visualization and in infographics, particularly the art-driven approach, is at the forefront of the business of turning complex data into knowledge that reaches a wide audience. This is an area of economic growth where Canada has the potential to be a global leader.

First, let’s clarify the meaning of “art-driven approach.” Traditionally, visualizations are developed by computer scientists with training in visual or applied arts. In contrast, an art-driven process starts with individuals who are primarily artists and designers, but also understand how computer sciences are applied to visualizations. It is the design team that drives the dialogue with the data/subject experts, until the desired look and feel is approved. Only then does the work shift to the computer coding team. When designers drive the process, they can create beautiful, quiet and clean visual spaces that will attract and retain attention and allow the user to absorb complex information easily.

For example, consider the Inter-American Development Bank’s (IADB) Energy Database and the Canadian National Energy Board (NEB) pilot concept. The first allows users to compare countries’ energy production and consumption over time, while the second gives users a way to explore the NEB forecasts of Canadian provinces’ energy production and consumption.

When individuals are introduced to an art-driven visualization database, their first reaction is to appreciate the visual aesthetic, and their second, mostly unconscious, response is to adopt a receptive attitude. Art touches individuals in subjective ways. The reaction to the NEB pilot concept was so positive that it published the source codes for the visualizations on open.canada.ca, a federal website that shares datasets so that the public can use them for research or even innovation. The NEB is now embarking on an initiative to transform its data management and presentation/sharing to incorporate effective art-driven visualizations.

Best of all is that the NEB project is set to leverage Canadian expertise to drive this initiative. The design will be presided over by one of the largest data visualization labs in the country, the University of Calgary’s InnoVis, led by Sheelagh Carpendale, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Information Visualization and NSERC/AITF/SMART Technologies Industrial Research Chair in Interactive Technologies. The spillovers are already at play. The fact that visual artist Christi Belcourt won a 2016 Governor General’s Innovation Award for her use of cutting-edge applied arts, design and technologies to raise awareness about murdered and missing Indigenous women shows that combining technology, art and information to help the transfer of knowledge is the way of the future.

There are countless areas in which art-driven visualization could expand knowledge and understanding of critical global issues. Think of the increased engagement to be gained though adoption of this approach in health, energy and, especially, climate change. On this last, a polarizing issue, Canada could be a world leader with clear and easy to comprehend data visualization.

If the Canadian government were to put in place a concerted and effective support program now, there is significant potential for art-driven visualization to become the go-to methodology for most data visualization projects in Canada. More support would not just cover the training of designers, it would also open up the possibility of contracts from government ministries and agencies that are contemplating data visualization projects. The existence of a highly trained work force, combined with the availability of open source codes of the highest quality, would lead to use of the approach by businesses and NGOs. The demand for designers and coders would increase; more opportunity would attract more interest in the field and increase research and innovation. This positive cycle would be amplified if the innovation agenda included support for all aspects of data management.

The competition for attention in the digital world is intense, and attention spans are becoming shorter. The website that offers us the quickest resolution to our search is the website we will rely on. Canada can move ahead and own the art-driven space.

Photo: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock.com


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