422 South: The Trials and Joys of Creating Animated Data Visualizations

Andy Davies-Coward
Written 2 years ago
in Design

422 South does stunning geo-spatial-temporal animated visualizations. They often contain huge quantities of data, and are rendered with beautiful levels of realism while still highlighting the data as abstract. Here’s a bit about how they land clients, and the ups and downs of creating visualizations.

Right now we are in the pre-production phase on a new series of Germany from Above, while simultaneously we’re talking with another client about the next run of Netherlands from Above. In this preproduction phase our broadcast producer clients usually fire ideas at us, testing our response on different potential subjects for our data visualization. They usually want a fast response on how feasible an idea is, and what it will cost. And money is always tight.

It’s almost impossible to give accurate figures until we’ve seen the data. But the data won’t be available until we actually start work – Catch 22. We’ve been round this loop before. Only once you start to unpick the data do you know if there’s a story to be told.. or not. Or if the data is corrupted, good, or coded in an easy or difficult way. We know that some subjects might be dropped after we’ve committed several days work – because the story no longer fits, or the results offer no particular insight into the subject. We’re getting much better at anticipating these kind of moments before they hit us, but they still come along.

Data stories can either tell impressive big-scale stories – like the huge numbers of flights over America, or smaller stories about a handful of individuals – or even a solo character. I like these best. One of my favourites is a visualization of the itinerary of a seagull in Amsterdam in a single day. You can almost read his mind as he takes off from the shoreline to go inland, pokes around in urban back yards before flying out to sea again. 24 hours later he ends where he started, on some rock by the beach. It’s really cute. I don’t speak Dutch so I don’t know for sure, but I believe the seagull has his own fan base on Youtube.

Netherlands from Above – Day in the life of a seagull from 422 South on Vimeo.

Amazingly, the potential subjects for data visualization don’t seem to be running out. GPS data (or other methods of geo-location) from hand held devices is opening up a huge field of new possibilities. One new subject we’re looking at is the expression of the results of a survey that looking at how every pupil in a particular elementary school travels to the school every day.

While we’re in preparation for these two new broadcast series, we are also working on a handful of smaller projects. One is a TV programme about domestic cats in the residential area of a city, in which we show the movements of a few tagged moggies over a period of a week. It’s clear the alpha male cat travels a long way, while other more timid creatures stay close to home.

There are also a few non broadcast projects on the go. These often come to us because someone has seen our work on television, and the client would like something similar for their own business or organization. These clients are great and they have interesting data that is perfect for visualization, but they are often inexperienced.

America Revealed Ep. 2 US flights and Chicago O’Hare airport from 422 South on Vimeo.

Their lack of experience in data visualization and animation means they don’t really understand or appreciate the processes involved. But it’s part of my job to educate clients, and I get a buzz out of immersing myself in very different subjects and looking inside different businesses and organizations to see how they work. It’s the one part of our business I can really imagine growing over the coming years.

 
Andy began his career as a staff designer for BBC Television, working in several of their UK locations. After a brief period with the ABC in Australia he started the company that became 422 South, and has many awards, including 2 EMMYs.