The Washington Post

How to visualize anything

Big data is a big deal. Every day brings stories of hedge fund managers combing through billions of tweets to predict market sentiment, or virologists studying the world’s Facebook updates to track the progress of the flu. Everybody, it seems, is suddenly fascinated by the patterns embedded in the enormous amounts of data that computers gather.

A special group of artists and designers are constantly devising new and creative ways to represent this data for us. They can reveal the surprising story hiding in a random-looking swarm of information.

Enter Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the folks who publish those annual anthologies of “Best American Essays,” “Best American Short Stories,” “Best American [fill in the blank].” This October, they’ll be adding a new line to their venerable franchise: “The Best American Infographics.”

The series will be edited by Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist who began his career in Washington and now writes a column for the Boston Globe. The publisher promises to present “the finest examples of data visualization” on the environment, politics, social issues, health, sports and culture. In keeping with the franchise design, each year’s volume will have a different guest introducer. For the debut volume that will be David Byrne, a founding member of Talking Heads and the creator of the Luaka Pop record label.

Here’s a taste from the upcoming book of the elegant ways that millions of pieces of data can be arranged to illustrate an interesting pattern:

Source:, Amitabh Chandra, Harvard University

Obviously, something’s going on in December….

Twitter @RonCharles


Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.



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Ron Charles · April 18, 2013

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