EFC AGA 2016: Why mind-blowing data viz does more than simply delight


Jen Bokoff


The close of today’s plenary session featured PIPS:lab, a local troupe creating blended theater+tech+music+comedy+data experiences.  We the audience had lights, which movements were being tracked by a camera and converted into data. While this isn’t the only example of this sort of performance and multi-component artistic rendering, it’s still pretty unique, and it’s without a doubt been the biggest “ooh and ahh” elicitor of this AGA so far. What’s the big deal?

People love making the abstract tangible. It’s one thing to read a report with numbers, ie 79% of people believe that donations will change the future. Great. It’s another thing to see that number through movement of light projected on a screen converted to data. It makes that number sticky and tied directly to everyone in the room.

People love seeing themselves in broader narratives. How satisfying was it to identify a letter in your name on the screen?! Beyond the initial “wow, neat!” factor, we then become a part of the conversation. Our name is entered for all to see, we have a unique data point and screen real estate, and suddenly, we become engaged more deeply because we don’t want our light to go away. To top it off, we then see our faces – evidence that whether we know it or not, people are watching us and our participation in the world.  (If this feels abstract because you weren’t in attendance, please look at the photo below!)

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Data visualizations make stories out of information. Stories are how human communicate and connect. When we can see information presented in some new, dynamic framework we don’t have to figure out how to understand that information; we hear the point right away. In this case, PIPS:lab was highlighting how we are all connected with one another, and the responsibility to impact the future through our work.

Visualizations move interpersonal action. After the applause and the announcement of lunch, what happened? Not a mad rush to the door for lunch. Instead, the notion of interconnectedness endured, and became a topic conversation for seat neighborhoods who had not yet connected but had bubbling reactions to share.

While we may not have access to technology that turns light into data and layers on the perfect music and levity, there’s still a really important takeaway here. What are we saying that’s not sticking because we don’t communicate it creatively? And, how will we then commit to elevating our interesting-to-us-but-information-overload-to-others messages into a framework that excites, inspires, and catalyzes?

Jen Bokoff is director of knowledge services at the Foundation Center.@jenbo1

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