Lose yourself, find yourself in data-vis masterpiece We Are Here

Data scientist Aaron Schiff pays tribute to the gorgeous new atlas which is also about poetry and climate change and privilege. We’ve also run an extract, here. 

What Chris McDowall and Tim Denee have made is a smashed-it-out-of-the-park heroically monumental work of data visualisation art. We Are Here deserves to become a much-loved dog-eared reference, and not just among data nerds like me, but in homes, schools, libraries, businesses, and government offices. 

It is a book of beautiful data visualisations of Aotearoa. But it is really a book about seeing and finding. Each of the 84 graphics shows a unique slice of our country and its people. Reading it is like having X-ray vision in many different dimensions at once. You can see New Zealand’s geology, seismology, ecology, economy, water, demography, politics, history, trash, culture, traffic, climate, and, of course, cats.

Smashed it out of the park: Wellington-based designer Tim Denee, left and Dr Chris McDowall, geographer, cartographer and environmental scientist.

You can also find yourself in this book. Rather than presenting heaps of dry aggregate statistics, in many of the graphs and maps individual people and houses and so on are shown. One of those tiny dots might be you. Other dots may be your whānau or your neighbours. By showing the micro data directly, the macro patterns of the aggregate statistics naturally emerge, and the stats aren’t so dry when you can find yourself in them. 

The pages in the book that made the biggest impression on me are two double-page spreads showing children growing up in poverty in New Zealand. This graphic reflects the daily lives of over a quarter of a million children, and each child is given their own dot. Different coloured dots represent different categories of hardship and from this assembly of dots we see the individual children and the sizes of the categories at the same time. Look at these pages for a moment and you may notice the colours of the dots are not dark and depressing, they are light and playful, because these dots are children and they are not defined by their poverty. It’s a stark and moving contrast that has so much more impact than aggregated statistics ever could. 

Each square on this data visualisation is made up of 100 dots (see the image below for a zoom). Each dot represents one child living in poverty in Aotearoa. The graphic continues on another spread.

Data visualisation is a process of making such choices. There are the obvious choices of colours, fonts, and layout. Then there are the less obvious choices: what to put in and what to leave out, what to emphasise, what to aggregate or disaggregate, and what to annotate. 

In making this book, Chris and Tim have made thousands and thousands of truly excellent choices. Their choices of what to leave out are just as inspired as their choices of what to put in. Maps are minimally labelled, or not at all. We see Whakatāne, Fielding, Ōamaru and Queenstown defined almost entirely by their road geometry and traffic volumes, revealing their urban forms shaped by both humans and nature without the clutter of road name labels. This minimal treatment lets the data speak, with just enough context to orient the reader but not distract them with irrelevant details.

Data visualisation is a mix of art and science, and to make something like We Are Here you have to be a modern-day da Vinci. You need to know how to write computer code of course, but in several programming languages. You need a bag of tricks to help your pedantic computer read a myriad of data file formats when it will threaten a meltdown if a single comma is out of place. You must be wary of the subversive ways that Excel can mangle data. You must understand the capabilities and limits of human visual perception and how people will interpret or misinterpret your graphics. You must study colour theory and understand the prejudices associated with certain colours. You must possess world-class skills in typography and graphic design. You also need to be humble enough to seek and heed the advice of subject experts. 

A map of Ōamaru, sans street names: let the data speak

So that’s why I said that what Chris and Tim have done is monumental. What they have produced is very beautiful, but it’s so much more than eye candy. They took a vast array of data, filtered and tidied and stitched it together, coaxed it all through a hodgepodge of software, applied brilliant design skills and great taste, then iterated, iterated, and iterated some more, to produce graphics and maps that are meaningful, insightful, and personal. For the data nerds and the curious, the appendix to the book gives a fascinating overview of how each graphic was made.

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We Are Here is also a solid testament to what can be done when government organisations decide to make data that they hold freely available for re-use. Much of the data used to make the book came from New Zealand government open data sources. I doubt any of those government departments anticipated they would have a helping hand in the production of a popular book, but this is an example of the magic that can happen when data is open and free for good people to use. More of that open data, please!

The only disappointment is that We Are Here couldn’t include any data from the 2018 Census. Chris and Tim simply couldn’t keep waiting to include the much-delayed results from last year’s badly run Census. This doesn’t detract from what they have done, but it is a tangible example of what we’ve lost from Stats NZ’s failures. 

Regardless, We Are Here will take its place as a classic among works of New Zealand non-fiction. It’s a book that everyone can and should read to know Aotearoa better. Give this book to literally anyone and they’ll be able to relate to it in some way and learn something at the same time. It made me smile to see that all the individual pieces of hardware in New Zealand’s entire armed forces fit on two pages – and the icons for the ships, tanks and planes are not very tiny. And did you know that we have six combat tractors?

We Are Here: An Atlas of Aotearoa by Chris McDowall & Tim Denee (Massey University Press, $70) is available at Unity Books.


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