San Francisco: The Epicenter of Visual Storytelling

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Post by contributor Dan Turner

You know how I know data visualization has gone mainstream? Because it's only a matter of time before someone starts saying he was into it before it was cool.

No, wait, that happened. In San Francisco, as you'd expect.

"That would be me," laughs Eric Rodenbeck. He points out that if you've looked at a weather map, you've used a data visualization. Really, even my dad can check his commute traffic on Apple's Maps app, and this is a man who until recently dealt with email by dictating to his secretary. Mainstream.

graffiti archaeology

Rodenbeck isn't posing as a hipster; he really was into it. In 2001, he co-founded and still is the creative director and CEO of Stamen, which has built data visualizations for clients from the ACLU to Yahoo, on topics ranging from Crimespotting to Graffiti Archaeology.


That's not to say the visual representation of data can't be data first and science last. ScienceOnline Bay Area holds monthly discussions on using visuals to present science findings online; the pretty pictures that NASA and other astronomers build not only sell space in a sexy way but help uncover real discoveries easy to miss in a data stream of numbers. Want to inspect the Firefox codebase? There's a visualization for that. But did you understand it? Me neither. There's a lot of serious cogitating going on.

But independently, in the wider world, data visualization has become data viz which has become #dataviz; the contraction traces the medium's infiltration into our lives. Driving this is what drives most media: narrative. Narrative is the potent virus embedded in data viz that helps it spread and replicate in pop culture.

Lee Sherman, co-founder of SF-based, has bet heavily that data viz is the next form of storytelling, of narrative. How sure is he? The first line of his professional bio says that that "visual storytelling will save media." Data visualization, when done well, is a story.

The linking of story and data was something Rodenback was learning in the days before broadband, before mobile, before most kids pitching at Y Combinator were able to ride a bike. When at Quokka Sports, he was trying to "embed the internet" into coverage of the ’97-'98 Whitbread Round the World yacht race. It was new. It pushed the state of technology, and it was cool: you could track racing sailboats automatically by GPS data, with video and images pushed from mast-mounted satellite dishes.

They're joined in this crusade by Alberto Cairo, who says in his book The Functional Art that good visualizations tell a story, or at least allow us to discover one. "An illustration with a few figures," he recently tweeted, "... not the same thing." Or, as Sherman says, "nobody's going to read a spreadsheet," but a visualization with color and shapes and maybe motion? "All these things are looking to engage all our human senses." Data suggest that readers eat up data viz: the Knight Foundation saw that "Data visualizations are 30x as likely to be shared as traditional text articles."

This is leading major media outlets such as the New York Times to advertise for an "Interactive Storyteller" position; much of the Times' data viz efforts are powered by hires from the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting and the SF locals behind D3.js. And recently, the media think tank Knight Digital Media Center at UC Berkeley ran a data viz symposium attended by designers and writers from around the world.

Inequality & Mass Transit in the Bay Area
Inequality & Mass Transit in the Bay Area

SF was, and is, definitely a hub of this new medium, say both Rodenbeck and Sherman (and not just because their companies are based here, though you can't ignore's Giants visualization). Check the number of data viz Meetups in the Bay Area; look at the mapping of income inequality along local mass transit; see Sha Hwang's use of local company Trulia's data to show commute times; read Wired's Tim Leong's recounting of Vertigo comics.

And, ultimately, it seems that data viz is becoming what most people think of when they think of visual design. Of course, everyday objects such as street signs and shoes are designed, but as more and more news and entertainment is propagated this way, and the more and more we turn to interactions to find our route, or connect with others, or figure out where to live, it's going to be an infographic or data viz that pops to mind when people think, "design." It's kind of their own damn fault for making data so pretty.