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New technologies also mean new jobs. In this column, pioneers of these still-to-explore professional adventures will explain you what their job is about and what you should do if you want to follow their path. Listen to Franc Camps, the author of E&M's cover art for issue 14, which was a good example of data visualisation. 

Data visualisation is at the crossroads between design, journalism and statistics, and has been getting quite a bit of attention in recent years. Even one of the most important news stories of 2011 was a typical data journalism story: the cables of Wikileaks, which consisted of an incredible amount of documents, names, places, numbers. Documents that, let's be honest, nobody would read in their entirety. This is just an example of the rapidly increasing data overload that we contend with. This ocean of data requires a curator, a person who will select and present complexity in an understandable and compelling manner. That is the role of the data visualiser, data journalist, data storyteller or whatever other fancy name you might hear.

If you try to imagine writing the story behind some of the graphs, you might start to understand why data journalism makes sense.

Data visualisation and infographics are trending, but they are not new. Many professionals in the field mention as an inspiration one of the first complex charts ever designed, by Charles Minard in 1858, already a perfect example of data journalism. If you look at the figure (remember, 1858) and try to imagine writing the story behind that graph in the same space, you might start to understand why data journalism makes sense.

What is it that made the traditionally boring chart and infographic one of the fastest growing communication tools of our time? There is that aspect of curating data, which is important in the data flood we live in. But the improvement and diversity of tools available to tell a story based on data have also exploded, allowing designers to create much more elaborate structures, to explore landscapes and schemes with which to narrate. Some of the major players in technology innovation have jumped into this field (Google & Twitter, for example) and have been devoting large resources to their data science teams. Now, even the data section of the British newspaper The Guardian is among the most viewed sections (check the top data journalism stories here).

skills

As a professional field, data visualisation has many aspects to it that make for a diverse and interesting job. From the most quantitative angle, data visualisation has an obviously statistical approach. It requires the ability of analysing data, but in fact it is more about approaching data in a journalistic way: what is interesting about this dataset? What is new? What analysis is required to show it?

In fact data visualisation is more about approaching data in a journalistic way: what is interesting? What is new about this dataset?

Although print media do use infographics and visualisations, the real battlefield is on the web. This brings a certain computer science and interaction design perspective, or how to implement complex data interactions and visualisations and present them in an engaging way for the user. This is another major angle -interaction design. Interaction design is a specific type of design strongly related to the web but not limited to it, consisting of designing multiple ways in which the user can interact with the visualisation to get what he or she is looking for. Data visualisation has been growing way beyond charts, and in order to represent complex structures and data stories, some major interactive schemes are needed (check CNN's Ecosphere).

Charles Min...
Charles Minard, 1858 Charles Minard, 1858
Better Life...
Better Life initiative, OECD Better Life initiative, OECD
Ecosphere, ...
Ecosphere, CNN Ecosphere, CNN

Finally, the process requires intense creative thought, which tends to attract creatively curious people who also excel at numbers. I would guess that the way you think about this job depends a lot on which part you are most interested in, but at the same time I suspect a lot of people get interested in visualisation because it spans all these viewpoints.

As a matter of fact, what really caught my attention and drew me to the world of data visualisation was a very artistic project, Jonathan Harris' "We feel fine". The project was born in 2005, but it wasn't until the past 3 years that data visualisation trended enough to give such projects the recognition they deserve. "We feel fine" is a beautifully simple piece of visualisation for an enormously complex database, to me embodying a completely different way of thinking information. The application digs most major blog providers scanning for the words "feel" and "feeling" every ten minutes. Then it visualises all subjects feeling something around the world and allows you to navigate those in an almost dreamy way.

Data visualisation is clearly a profession that is here to stay because there are many roles to play as a data scientist.

Because of the multidisciplinary nature of the field, people from very different backgrounds end up building visualisations for the news, for companies, for organisations. I've worked with people with backgrounds in architecture, computer science, math, visual art, and design, and I myself have a background in neuroscience. Data visualisation is a field that has no clear educational path, because there are all these possibilities. As a matter of fact, it is clearly a profession that is here to stay because there are many roles to play as a data scientist. Essentially, as many ways there are of approaching data visualisation.

Studies

So what do you have to do to become a professional data storyteller? There are a range of programmes around Europe that can land you a job in visualisation or certify you as reliable freelancer for media and companies. Most programmes in design, interactive media or interactive design will get you started in data visualisation, and also some quantitative background (a BSc in any science-related field) would play to your favour. Statistics and human-computer interaction programmes are definitely the hardcore fields to get into if this is what you are looking for. However, you'll also need plenty of initiative and and the ability to work on your own.

The truth is, in the future, data visualisation might be a clear specialisation in master's or bachelor's degrees. Right now, however, it is more of a combination of skills, interests and creativity. Don't look at this as a disadvantage. It is actually an opportunity to combine your skills and interests in a new way and explore your own way into it.

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