When Pentagram partner Eddie Opara began collaborating with the predictive analytics software company Uptake, he didn’t expect the project to render an infographic about the height of the devil. But a whole section in a new book he designed for the business is devoted to academic speculation on the size of hell based on Dante’s Inferno, including diagrams of Satan himself. (Spoiler: scholars put the devil at 3,902 or 5,853 feet tall.)
Through analyzing trends in large data sets, predictive analytics creates mathematical models and algorithms that predict certain outcomes. It’s not perfect, but it’s lightyears better than a shot in the dark. But even explaining it can be a challenge: data itself can be boring and dense, and technical writing about how it works can be esoteric. Uptake hoped that it could create the ultimate reference guide for predictive data’s potential, and by demystifying what it can achieve, convince more people about its power.
Uptake hired Pentagram–which worked very closely with editors Molly Heintz and Avinash Rajagopal of the editorial consultancy Superscript–to create Changing Lives, Reimagining Machines, Improving Cities, Revolutionizing Industries and Shaping the Future Right Before Your Eyes, a 250-page book that dives deep into how scientists and researchers in public health, transportation, life sciences, sociology, and the arts are using data to develop new insights about virtually every aspect of the world–classical literature included. The book uses case studies, interviews with experts, and dozens of infographics and diagrams to enrich Uptake’s grand narrative: predictive data will make the world a better place.
In the age of interactive infographics, it seems like an anachronism to produce a book on deciphering data, but Uptake’s CEO, Brad Keywell, was intent on the format based on how he wanted readers to use it. The book’s intended target is CEOs at large and mid-size organizations that might have heard about predictive data analysis in the news or in passing, and have a cursory knowledge about it as a concept, but don’t have a full grasp on its potential. The coffee table book is designed to be kept for reference, and returned to time and again.
“The idea is for the American CEOs to take [predictive data] seriously because other countries are,” Opara says. “Uptake is saying, we have the data to state that [something] will work over time. This is not soothsaying.”
The finished tome contains case studies that range from explaining how data was used to predict the spread of Zika in Florida, to how offshore wind farms could power homes, to the way neuroscientists are understanding Alzheimers and aging through computational analysis.
Then there’s the book’s study of hell. Turns out Dante was very descriptive in his writings about the scale of hell, and when scholars have tried to make sense of his fictitious realms in the past, they’ve led to discoveries about the world. Galileo, for example, hit upon the square-cube law–a mathematical principle about how surface area changes as volume changes–when trying to visualize Dante’s “data” on the size of hell. Scientists at Uptake are doing something similar by developing ways to better understand abstract ideas; the process mirrors the complexity of building new tools to understand old data.
“It’s not like it’s the aesthetic of the diagrams or the size of the reconstruction of hell that’s great; it’s about how the idea came together,” Opara tells Co.Design. “Calculating the size of Lucifer from different authors’ and artists’ points of view and cross referencing that to ideas of how to define new frontiers of data is really taking something old and reconnect it to something that’s new.”
For this type of information, a website wouldn’t work. The book’s chapters explain each case at hand, the thinking behind the research, and how predictive data entered the picture. “When you’re reading online, the narrative format doesn’t make you engage and take off thinking immediately,” Opara says. “There’s something about a book: being in a particular place, sitting down, and taking your time reading and absorbing the information.”
Recognizing that readers use books in different ways–some look at pictures, others skim, and some concentrate on reading–Opara and his team switched up the formatting periodically throughout the book. There are text blocks, pull quotes that take up entire pages, and infographics. The interviews with Uptake experts are printed in smaller “booklets” that are bound within the hardcover, intentionally deemphasizing Uptake. It’s not about selling the company so much as the power of predictive data. Of course, Uptake has expertise and services available, should the book convince CEOs to investigate what data can do for their business.
“[Keywell] is looking at it from an educational standpoint,” Opara says. “It’s a present, a present to you to reinforce–or reeducate you–about what data can do.” Through Changing Lives, Uptake and Pentagram are serving up a crash course in future of data–and why books still matter.
Editor’s Note: The post has been update to mention the editorial consultancy Superscript‘s work on the book.