In just one sentence, Infogr.am COO Mikko Järvenpää explained the reason for the recent explosion of infographics across the Internet.
"Every time when data or numbers [alone] competes with a story, the story wins," Järvenpää said Tuesday during his talk at DataWeek + API World 2014 in San Francisco. His company develops data visualization creation software.
To illustrate his point, Järvenpää told the story of how a physician named John Snow told a story with data visualization to help eradicate a severe cholera outbreak in London during the mid 19th century.
Snow took map of London and marked down all of the households that had been afflicted by the disease. "He was able to show that they concentrated around a certain locus point, which was the Broad Street water pump in central SoHo," Järvenpää explained.
During a time when people believed that disease spread through the stench of rotting garbage, Snow was able to convince city officials that the water pump was, in fact, the source. The pump was shut down, and Snow soon proved to be right.
"An early win for data literacy and data visualization," Järvenpää said.
Given the effectiveness--and popularity--of this kind of storytelling, it's no wonder that companies and consumers alike want in on the action. That's precisely why Järvenpää created his company Infogr.am with the lay data analyst and designer in mind.
But, Järvenpää learned early on that amateur attempts at creating data visualizations don't always result in first-class work. Sometimes the flaw lies with the data. Other times, creators inadvertently present the data in a confusing way.
Now, you might argue that what his customers do with their data visualizations isn't really Järvenpää's problem. He's just the tool-builder, after all.
That's not how he sees it. Järvenpää argued that companies like Infogr.am, that create and sell data tools, have a responsibility to help increase the data literacy among the customers they're serving.
"For there to be a demand for data products, there has to be a strong base of data literacy. Otherwise it's like selling printing presses to the illiterate. It's not just a waste of time, but it's actually ignorant."
In short, it's just good businesses to help customers get smarter about data.
Helping to solidify this base is much easier said then done, Järvenpää said, since the skills gap is much wider than most people realize. For example, he referenced a study from the late 90s that found that 58 percent of journalists--who today play a large roll in the dissemination of infographics--didn't have the skills to properly deal with that statistics that they encountered every day on the job.
Armed with that data, Järvenpää decided his company needed to be more strategic in its approach. So this week Infogr.am is launching Infogram.org this week. The separate site will include free education and training materials for journalists, educators, nonprofits, and really any lay person who needs to brush up on data analysis skills. The effort won't directly generate revenue for the company, but it's obviously good content marketing for the brand. But Järvenpää said it's also about the larger goal of making sure people understand the power--and the ethics--behind the numbers they're using.
"This is really our responsibility," Järvenpää said. "We just have to wake up to the fact that the technological imbalance has major repercussions. Because infographics are not just eye candy."