Bestario, a Spanish infographics firm, designs Web sites that attempt to find new relationships in a teeming mass of data. Sometimes, the results are interesting, as examples, if nothing else, of data porn; other times, it’s merely confounding. Its new project is a great deal easier to explain: The Wainova World Atlas of Innovation attempts to map the world’s major science and business incubators, as well as the professional associations linking them.
It’s an interesting conceit–even if the results fall well short of being a panorama of “the knowledge and comprehension of innovation and its huge importance for growth and wealth creation[sic].” instead, it’s kind of like a phonebook whose pages swoop around a lot, with some survey data bolted on.
The failing here illustrates an important point about information graphics in general: They’re only as good as the data they map. Without interesting data, they can’t tell us anything worth knowing–and the ultimate promise of infographics is that they provide us surprising insights that we would have otherwise missed. That’s why the best data visualization teams–such as that of The New York Times–are comprised equally of computer scientists, cartographers, journalists, and just a couple of designers. The best experiments (the works of Aaron Koblin and Jonathan Harris come to mind) arise only when the creator has thought deeply about what kinds of stories the data can tell–while being true to the data itself.
In the case of innovation, we wonder: What data set would actually allow Wainova to accomplish its grand ambition? Sure, you could provide a way to browse research papers and projects happening at one of the science parks. But we already have that: It’s called the Internet. Does mapping that information with fancier graphics add anything?
As an alternative, we propose this: What about a real-time innovation search engine that tells you exactly where terms like “start-up” and “killer robots” or “eternal life” are being searched for the most? We’d sign up for that–if only to know exactly where Skynet is likely to rise, and thus where we should direct our next guerrilla assault.
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