21
Dec

Making Data Meaningful: Of Clocks and Calendars

By: Steven Homestead, Story Architect

At New Years, millions of us around the globe spend a few minutes focusing on a clock to mark an exact time. We also turn our attention to calendars, pinning up new versions with pictures of puppies or scrolling further ahead in our smartphone apps. Of course, times and dates are still important to us throughout the year, whether we’re scheduling coffee hangouts, updating project deadlines, or penciling in video game release dates. But now, as we focus on the changing year, it gives us an opportunity to look at time, and how visualizing it helps us to make it meaningful, in a world filled with all sorts of data and busyness.

Part of human nature is developing meaning through experience—as we touch, taste, smell, hear, and see the world around us—then comparing, contrasting, and synthesizing these experiences to make decisions going forward. As a Story Architect, I help make data meaningful through some powerful tools often found in such creations as books, magazines, movies, symphonies, or paintings, including those tools of visual hierarchy, narration, chronology, and symbolism. In explaining these tools, time is a prime example I use to reveal how visual hierarchy and symbolism make data meaningful. Considering the quantum or philosophical views of time can take us down the rabbit hole into abstract and esoteric thought, but looking at time in our day-to-day lives, we find that across the globe people use circles, squares, and numbers to create visual systems of collectable, trackable, and meaningful data.

We are so familiar with seeing and using clocks and calendars that they might have lost their novelty and ability to amaze us. These visual technologies developed over time (pun intended), helping us function and plan to very precise degrees. Organizing sequences, applying a rhythm to them, and forming them into a circle or grid are examples of how visual elements (size, pattern, shape, etc.) can create something that has greater meaning and usefulness. These data visualizations help us conceptualize segments of our own lives. They help us make decisions.

These simple visuals, for instance, mean that we can plan for where we will be and when—a powerful ability! A few centuries ago, you might have been waiting by the trading post for the next delivery of medicine from St. Louis, not knowing exactly when the wagon carrying it would arrive. Thanks to timepieces and train schedules, the global concept of time, clocks, and travel were aligned in such a way so that you could know when a shipment would come in, even to the minute. This is a pretty remarkable and un-sung development from the 1800s that we will continue to benefit from, even as carrying timepieces increased our ability to be and feel “late.”

So as we count down to the New Year, let’s remember to look around and take stock of how meaning is applied to all sorts of data. The opportunities we have with data collection go beyond simply knowing numbers or statistics, to understanding the meaning within data to help us make decisions and take action. Time might be a construct that we’ve given a face to, but by doing so, we’ve opened up a way to form it, collect it, and make actionable meaning of it in a global, visual way. It’s meaningful data visualization, on display in the form of clocks and calendars. Have a happy, healthy, meaningful, and visual New Year!