Doctoral student Hannah Budnitz reports on her experience of env.infohackit Birmingham

Big data is defined as datasets that are uncomfortably large for a single machine to process into information. I previously wondered whether big data should actually be defined as datasets that are uncomfortably large for a single human to conceive of and to trust when they are processed into information.

I have returned from another workshop where we were taught one way we can make people more comfortable with the information we may derive from our big data research: by presenting it visually in a compelling, creative and coherent manner. A picture is worth a thousand words. Or an infographic should be.

The training workshop at infohackit Birmingham started with a definition. Infographics are “graphic, visual representations of information, data or knowledge intended to present information quickly and clearly.” They can help explain things, especially patterns, trends or changes over time or within complex systems or geographies. Ideally, they should represent ideas, facts and statistics without distorting them. They should teach, warn, and persuade whoever is the target audience.

Infographics are not new. They can be found in 19th century policy documents, early social science textbooks and every publication of census information for general consumption. More recently, as websites seek to increase clicks via compelling content, infographics have become more popular. Their quality has not kept pace with their quantity, although great examples can be found with a little digging. Many at the workshop shared a few favourites and in the past, I have tweeted infographics that stir my own imagination.

The key to great infographics…

As we turned to more practical exercises at the workshop, we soon learned why there are so many terrible infographics out there. Whilst a picture may be worth a thousand words, it takes at least as long, if not longer, to create said picture than to write a thousand words. It would appear that such an investment of time (and skill and the right tools) is not granted to the majority of infographics in circulation today.

Time is also needed to practice and build skills in this area. The workshop gave me a greater appreciation for the professionals out there. Although a novice can quickly grasp the basics of graphic design tools, mastery takes years. On the other hand, with professionals on hand to help, our group of PhD students were able to produce some pretty neat, informative infographics at the env.infohackit event.

This brings us back to comfort. Various audiences struggle to be comfortable with the outcomes of big data analysis, especially if it is scientific. Climate change and other global environmental issues are key examples. If this discomfort and mistrust can be overcome, fantastic infographics are a likely way to do it, because a good picture is something we all can understand, no matter our age, education or the language we speak.

At the env.infohackit workshop, I felt more comfortable creating something in a visual language of graphics than in a computer programming language, which I had tried at a previous workshop. I hope that my comfort will be felt by my audience when I illustrate my own research in future (provided I have the information I want to illustrate!).

Check out what Team Shumo came up with…


Hannah Budnitz is a doctoral student at the University of Birmingham researching the interactions between commuting modes and telecommuting during severe weather events using travel and ICT data sources to identify opportunities to mitigate risks of more frequent extreme weather due to climate change. She is also current Chair of the Transport Planning Network at the Royal Town Planning Institute. With over a dozen years’ previous experience as a transport planner in both the public and private sector, she writes a transport-related blog on topics ranging from bicycling to big data and is active on Twitter @HBudnitz.

This post originally appeared on, transport planning delivered by HD Budnitz.



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