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Markets For Good Interview: Dino Citraro, Periscopic

periscopicMarkets for Good caught up with Dino Citraro, Head of Strategic Design and Operations at Periscopic. We wanted to explore a few essential questions that might help us as we shape a view on the landscape and progress of data visualization as a tool for social impact.  Dino offers his perspective on the current state, uses and challenges. Regardless of your current usage or skill level, read on with an eye for specific points that raise questions or points that may spark your thoughts on problem-solving. In this near-vertical ramp in the development of visual tools, the best of our knowledge won’t come from one-way views to experts, but rather by mutual engagement as the experts are also informed by your questions.

Periscopic is an award-winning data visualization firm. We convert raw data into visual and interactive experiences that allow people to empathize and understand. We help companies and organizations promote data transparency and public awareness. From endangered species, to sustainability, to politics, to social justice, it is our goal to use technology to visualize solutions that engage the public and deliver messages of action. We strive to work with those that share similar ideals of progressive social responsibility – whether that means an organization that is making strides along this path, or its mission falls entirely within it. Our tagline, “do good with data” describes our philosophy, as well as our approach.”

Eric J Henderson, Markets For Good (Eric): From your perspective, what is the current state of data visualization that aims directly for social impact?

Dino Citraro, Periscopic (Dino): Many of the visualizations that we come across are attempting to address social issues. This is partly because the focus of Periscopic is to “do good with data” (so we tend to notice the work that is being done in this area), but it is also a result of the type of organizations that are drawn to data in general.

Most of them are rooted in the sciences or humanitarian disciplines. Many (perhaps most) of the large nonprofit organizations use data to help inform their decisions, as well as reveal their narratives. Think about the organizations that are working to improve human rights, the environment, or social justice. Often the power of their message comes from the ability to show trends and patterns over time, which is of course the essence of data visualization.

The act of making this data visual (regardless of the quality) is a huge improvement over the alternative. Now that the visual representation of data is becoming common, it allows us to communicate in ways that were previously unavailable. The effectiveness of an individual campaign is less important (to me) than the potential these organizations have for communicating in the future. People are becoming comfortable with data, and that can lead to good things.

Caution is needed when it comes to ensuring the accuracy of data, and the potential for over-designing its representation, but those are manageable challenges.

Eric: Where do we place the long-standing tool, the infographic, in modern data visualization?

Dino: Both are helpful, but interactivity has the potential to allow viewers to immediately verify the data and reach their own conclusions. This assumes, of course, that the raw data is being presented and it hasn’t been skewed to show only a certain point of view. The idea of creating an interface for viewing, sorting and filtering data is essential if you want to gain insights, but those items alone will not guarantee a powerful visualization. You also need an appropriate metaphor or engaging interface (or both). Often the reason a visualization is not impactful is a result of a disconnect in the design or implementation, not the underlying data.

We have written more about the importance of data presentation as it relates to infographics, in case this is helpful: When An Infographic Isn’t: The Rise of Digital Posters

Eric: How are you sorting through big data – to ensure that is, at once, usable, but also not an overwhelming distraction given the potential for the social sector?

Dino: The term “big data” is used frequently, but I sense people are using it to mean different things. We define it this way: Once the data you collect becomes so large that you cannot process all of it at once, it has crossed into the realm of big data. Processing is the key.

As computing power increases, the definition of big data changes. Visualizing it is also another somewhat ambiguous area. Most data can’t be visualized in its entirety, at least not in immediately impactful ways.

This is why people aggregate and summarize, or “bin” sets together to show relationships. The visualization of data is always an abstraction, just as the act of collecting it is always removed from the many relationships a single datapoint might have had when it was first observed. In general, there is no easy way to understand data. It is a nuanced and subjective act that can be facilitated by tools and techniques, but it requires interpretation and the consideration of the relationships that might not be immediately associated with the current dataset.

Eric: What would make the most powerful outputs of data visualization accessible to users across the social sector? (An ideal scenario would be that even organizations with small budgets have the awareness, access, and skill needed to use basic visualization to help analyze data and communicate more effectively.)

Dino: If large institutions were to provide tools that allow people to quickly analyze data, then it would facilitate transparency. Making data available is an important first step, but access to data does not imply that knowledge can be gleaned from it. This is potentially a philosophical issue, and likely depends on your position when it comes to the right of the public to access and understand data.


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