I’m not going to lie: health care stats are skull#@*%ingly boring. It’s the kind of thing you really want to care about, but just…can’t. Which makes it a perfect test case for Fathom, the information design/visualization firm co-founded by dataviz demigod Ben Fry: If these all-stars can’t present this stuff in an engaging way, no one can. Luckily, Fathom’s first iPad app, “Stats of the Union,” pulls it off and then some.
Fathom created the app for GE “as a tool to look at health stories in America.” Key word there: stories. Stats don’t mean jack to normal humans unless they illuminate a narrative, and Stats of the Union presents itself that way right from the get-go by asking: “What’s the story of health in America?”. The language Fathom uses to frame its visualizations — “explore the nation’s vital signs,” “save it as a snapshot” — primes the user to treat these statistical abstractions like frames in a film, or personal photos in an album.
Stats of the Union isn’t “data visualization,” it’s an invitation to imagine stories.
Of course, the actual statistics themselves — culled from federal sources including the Census Bureau, Department of Health & Human Services, Department of Labor and the Environmental Protection Agency — are pretty much bulletproof. And the interaction design is top-shelf: you can use snapshot-like tags along the side of the screen to zoom into particular “stories” (as Fathom calls them) like which counties have the most uninsured young people. Or you can tap and zoom and filter the map on your own. All the while, a tiny mini-map in the upper right hand corner always keeps you oriented in the big picture, and an ingenious “History” function lets you go back to stories you’ve already explored.
The real innovation behind Stats of the Union is Fathom’s wise decision to move beyond infographics-just-for-the-sake-of-infographics. Pretty visuals are nice and all, but honestly: after that initial eye-candy dopamine spike, who cares? Stats of the Union isn’t “data visualization” (zzzzzzz… oh sorry, I nodded off there), it’s an invitation to imagine stories about real places and real people. That’s how you create engagement out of mere information — and that’s where an opportunity for real social change can begin.