Right now, it’s not all that cool to be passionate about data. Express more than a passing interest in it and you’ll probably get labelled a “geek” or a “nerd.” It’s sad, really. As well as being a bit mean, these names have helped create a stigma that's put a lot of people off the field completely. Put bluntly, data is for losers – and in an industry that likes to think of itself as cool and creative, like advertising, it’s often seen as the enemy.
Now, however, that view isn't just wrong - it's dangerous. In the right hands, not only can data be warm, creative and inspiring, but our industry’s reluctance to embrace it has left us drowning in information when we should be out there surfing. As the world becomes filled with an unstoppable explosion of data, technology, skill and speed are the keys to a competitive edge – and if we don’t change our minds about data quickly, we’re going to get left behind.
Thankfully, there’s a new breed of revolutionary out there who we can look to for inspiration. People who embrace the world of data and see not limitations, but possibilities. People who know that science and art aren’t enemies, but brothers. People who say bollocks to the old opinions of what data is, how it should be used and how it should be presented. And that’s why I call them “Data Punks”.
For me, anyone doing something cool, unexpected and creative with information deserves to be called a Data Punk. There are plenty of them out there (especially at Google) but for starters, let me introduce you to three who inspired me whilst I was writing my paper.
First up is Jonathan Harris. He’s a computer scientist, artist and anthropologist who designs systems to explore and explain the world - although he prefers to be known simply as “a storyteller”. Harris’ work includes We Feel Fine, an “exploration of human emotion on a global scale." We Feel Fine captures words and pictures associated with emotions from millions of blogs, along with the age, gender and location of the author, plus the weather at the time, and presents it all as interactive art. Have a play for yourself on the website above, or watch him explain it in this video:
Our next Data Punk is the David McCandless, a journalist and author who is following up his bestseller “The Internet: Now in Handy Book Form” with something called “The Information Atlas.” If you’ve got 20 minutes its well worth watching his surprising and hilarious talk from this year’s Under the Influence conference/Booze Up here.
Our third Data Punk is Hans Rosling, Professor of International Health at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. By using interactive, animated charts to bring world poverty and health data to life – not to mention his own, extraordinarily animated, personality – Hans hopes to do nothing less than change the way you feel about the planet you’re living on:
Each of these three guys shows us that data’s cold, secretive and frankly dull past is being replaced by a warm, open and inspiring future - where we have far more to be excited about than to fear. The days of looking down on the “geeks” and “nerds” are over. Data can be creative. Data can be cool. And the future belongs to the Data Punks.