The Power of Visualization in an Information Jungle

We are currently living in a so-called ‘information society’. Due to the
technical developments of the past decades, more information has become more
easily accessible to an increasing number of people than at any time in human



It was the German sociologist Georg Simmel who, as early as 1950,
recognized the negative impact of having too much information at one’s
disposal. Human beings are only able to process and store a limited amount of
information, as has been shown by psychologists. An overload of information
could lead to confusion, poorer decision-making or simply boredom.



Ironically, I got stuck in the information that has been produced about
the negative impact of information overload. Recognizing the problems attached
to such an overload, a more important and relevant question to ask ourselves
is: how do we prevent ourselves and others from getting bombarded with
information, while still being able to select and offer those pieces that are
worth being processed and stored?

One person who has offered an answer to this question is David McCandless.
In an inspiring Ted-talk, the British author, data journalist and information
designer talks about the beauty of data visualization: “If you are navigating a
dense information jungle, coming across a beautiful graphic or a lovely data
visualization, it is a relief, it is like coming across the clearing in the

Watch the TED talk here 

McCandless argues that visualization enables one to compress an enormous
amount of information and understanding in, for instance, only one image. A powerful
visualization that McCandless and his colleagues made can be found here, which shows the scientific evidence base for popular health supplements such
as coffee, iron, marihuana, garlic and green tea. At a glance, it becomes clear
that there exists a strong evidence base for coffee in lowering the risk of
heart disease (optimum amount is 3-5 cups a day!), while there exists an
inconclusive evidence base for green tea in cancer prevention (for more details
or a lively discussion about these results contact Tom Sterk).

McCandless’ visualization of an immense amount of data prevents us from
having to skim through all available information that appears when googling
health supplements (169.000.000 hits in 0,53 seconds). This saves us energy,
but also time, which we then can spend on, well apparently we should spend it
on drinking coffee…



Data visualization is one answer to a well-known problem, see the
infographic above which visually summarizes how an overload of data can affect
all of us office-workers.  But what is
the value of data visualization for Oxfam’s work?

As an intern in the Impact Measurement Team of Oxfam Novib, I come
across data which touches upon a wide range of different topics. How to make
sense of all that information and how to translate it into something accessible,
understandable and usable will be an important focus of my internship, with
most yet to come. Data visualization will likely be an answer, especially given
the limited time-availability of many of us and the increased ease of
processing the information that is shown. It is a new field which I have just
started discovering by designing my first infographic and a field that I am
excited about continuing to explore.

To be continued…

Marjolein is currently working
with the impact measurement team researching the way Oxfam Novib can use
qualitative data for impact measurement. As a strong advocate for education she
spend time abroad several times researching this showing her adventures
spirit and thirst for traveling.


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