Data visualizations in popular Dutch media

On: April 17, 2014
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About M. van Helvert


EVERY TWO DAYS WE CREATE as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003, according to Google CEO Eric Schmidt.  That is something like five exabytes of data: bytes. It is no surprise then that it sometimes feels like we are all suffering from information overload, says data journalist David McCandless in his TED talk ‘The beauty of data visualization’ (2010). McCandless has good news though. He offers the audience a solution to data glut. Visualization, so that we can see the patterns and connections that matter and then designing that information so it makes more sense, or it tells a story, or allows us to focus only on the information that is important. “Failing that, visualized information can just look really cool.” He repeats that specific phrase in his conclusion: “even when the information is terrible, the visual can be quite beautiful.” I think that assumption is terrible and it reminds me of a quote by Edward Tufte: “style and aesthetics cannot rescue failed content.”

Data visualizations are great for making the complex simple, to tell a story and to make boring facts exiting (Stefaner 2014). At the same time that idea also seems false to a large degree. The real value of data visualizations is that it functions as a macroscope to investigate the “infinitely complex” (specially humanity and nature). This seems especially true for exploratory data visualization, Moritz Stefaner argues during his lecture ‘Worlds, not stories’ in New York, February 2014. The enthusiast scholar perceives the data journalists, academics and other data works as photographers. “In each new assignment, I chart new territory, travel to unknown ‘data countries’, lift every rock, and document as much as I can.” According to the speaker a data visualization is like a photo, “never an objective reflection, but always an interpretation of reality.”

Up until now, I have seen few truly impressive forms of ‘data photography’ coming from Dutch newsrooms. In many infographics there seems a lot to improve. Many data visualizations are no more than a combination of images, text and numbers in a picture. Those data visualizations often lack a context. It is hard to imagine why the designer projects the information he shows to a broader public. Here is one example, more to follow:

Maybe the infographic above is a tad too ambitious. It seems like the designer wants to visualize ten years of Facebook in one relatively small picture. How many users does the website have? Who are the most popular Dutch politicians and companies? I believe the users need more background information in the infographic, like statistics from abroad and a comparison with other social media. In the second place, I believe the designer should also make a choice. Kill your darlings. Abandon information, so that you emphasize other data.


Designers are easy victims for fashion; therefore visualization expert Alberto Cairo advises these ‘photographers’ to think as a reader, not like a designer (2012: 37). “One of the most important principles to remember when dealing with infographics and visualizations is that form should be constrained by the functions of your presentation.” In his book ‘The Functional Art’ author Alberto Cairo presents rock-solid rules to his readers. A graphic must (1) present several variables so that the reader has access to the ‘proper’ information, (2) allow comparisons at a glance, (3) help the reader organize the data, (4) make correlations/relations evident (20102: 26-7). Those rules help its readers to understand form does not always follow function. There may be more than one form a data set can adopt, but the data cannot adopt any form (2012: 36).

Cairo adds to the claim above (‘think as a reader’) that data visualizations should be seen as a form of technology, like new kinds of glasses to see the world through. “Information graphics are technologies, meaning to fulfill purposes, devices whose aim is to help an audience complete certain tasks” (2012: 23). Visualizing data is about creating a greater understanding through technology. Cairo states that the first and main goal of any graphic and visualization is to be “a tool for your eyes and brain to perceive what lies beyond their natural reach.” It seems a McLuhanesque claim, wherein the operations of the infographic function as prosthetic extensions of the human. The natural, unaided body overcomes it limitations in a mediated world.

Good infographic design is about storytelling by combining data visualization design and graphic design. Recently newspaper NRC Handelsblad has shown how to turn data into a great way to tell a story.  This is my top favorite, that unfortunately I cannot embed. Below are four other examples of information graphics from Dutch (print) media, I find worth introducing for several reason.

I like the visualization of visualizations above. It shows how often newspaper De Volkskrant publishes data visualizations in one week. Bar charts (14), geospatial maps (13) and illustrations (6) are apparently the most common data visualizations. I think the information is clear at a glance and therefore a successful visualization. I would only recommend to put the most frequent type on top, being bar charts.

Another succesfull visualization from De Volkskrant. I think this one is interesting because here the newspaper shows it does not hesitate to confront its users with complex information. The datavis highlights the focal points of political parties on several topics, just before the recent elections. I am not sure if it is particularly good, but it is defiantan interesting choice.

The visualization above is from the Dutch website De Correspondent and problematizes the data that is objective in itself. The graphic shows the world with growth of separation walls since the Second World War. From the visualization number of growth is not immediately clear. Are those measurements kilometers or miles? I guess not, but I would not know what else. What is even more appealing is that the information is rotated. The 3D-effect causes major confusion: the 3D-line (?!) is hard to follow due to a slight rotation of the graph.

Can somebody explain to me why there is no information on the Y-axis?


Cairo, Alberto. The functional art. An introduction to information graphics and visualizations. Berkeley: News Riders, 2012.

David McCandless: ‘The beauty of data visualization.’ TED. Ideas worth spreading. July 2010. April 2nd 2014. <>.

Kirkpatrick, Marshall. ‘Google CEO Schmidt: “People Aren’t Ready for the Technology Revolution”’. Readwrite. August 4th 2010. April 2nd 2014. <>.

Off Book. ‘The art of data visualization’. YouTube. May 9th 2013. April 2nd 2014. <>.

Stefaner, Moritz. ‘Worlds, not stories’. Well-formed data. March 2nd 2014. April 2nd 2014. <>.

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