Three Things the World Cup Taught Us About Data Visualization

by   |   July 16, 2014 5:30 am   |   0 Comments

Congratulations to Germany on their World Cup 2014 win. They were the best team in the tournament and deserved their 1-0 victory in a great final. It was a fantastic winning goal, too, by Mario Gotze. After four great weeks, national teams, FIFA, and the players can now reflect on possibly the best-ever World Cup. As a data geek, I am doing the same, but focusing on the tournament’s implications for data visualization.

I believe data visualization took some great steps forward during the tournament, which revealed three things:

Data Visualization Is the New Normal

Media coverage of the World Cup 2014 included more visual storytelling than ever. The news stories and blog posts about the tournament were compelling and included plenty of effective charts that stuck closely to visual best practices. I particularly liked The Economist’s World Cup goal profile, showing the time at which every goal from every World Cup tournament was scored.

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The chart reveals surprising patterns. For example, why are so many goals scored in the 18th and 75th minutes?

Many stories included visualizations that explored where each squad member plays domestic football. Quartz had a nice example using a simple heat map.

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The Guardian and the BBC integrated live visuals of game stats in their minute-by-minute reports.

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These visualizations show that graphics don’t have to be flashy to be effective. Some news organizations realized that, although the 2014 tournament provided us with a bonanza of interesting data, they don’t need complex chart types to tell interesting stories – bar charts and heat maps, which can be made in any visualization tool, are just fine. They are simple and designed to convey key information quickly. I’m particularly excited that these weren’t introduced with big, splashy articles. The media organizations didn’t feel the need to shout about their new visual tools. They just got on with it and showed that they understand that some stories are best told with visualization.

Simple and clean is often better than cluttered and headache-inducing. Remember the wall chart, the broadsheet graphic newspapers would publish for fans to fill in as the tournament progressed? For the 2014 tournament, news organizations offered interactive predictors with all sorts of crazy designs and statistical models. EA Sports had an interactive bracket. The Telegraph did something similar but with little design flair. (They were good enough to call it the “Wall Chart predictor game” though.)

Bloomberg tried something different, making something that was as interactive as it was readable. The Economist produced a probability circle. Trendy new data journalism sites such as FiveThirtyEight also got in on the act (and were summarily criticized for getting things so wrong).

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Data Visualization Demonstrates Business Value

Social media exploded during the World Cup 2014 – and that was important for more than just spectators. The World Cup 2014 was the most talked about sports events ever. According to @TwitterData, the conversation during the final peaked at 618,275 tweets per minute.

The business value of social media became evident via data visualization. For example, we were able to measure the success of official sponsors’ campaigns compared with non-sponsors’ campaigns.

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You can measure this in many ways, for example by tweets, uses of hashtags or clicks on links. For example, looking at hashtags, we can see that Nike, not a World Cup sponsor, outperformed all but one of FIFA’s official partners. This valuable business insight helps brands and businesses consider how to focus marketing.

Data Visualization Can Be Fun

The World Cup is a festival, a spectacle, a celebration. The amount of data being generated by the World Cup 2014 let us explore just about anything, including this visualization of elongated celebratory “GOAL” screams on social media.

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This chart was inspired by South American commentators and their elongated “goal” screams. James Rodriguez provided a stellar example this year. I wondered how this was reflected on social networks. When people celebrate a goal, how many characters do they use in the world “goal” or “gol”? Turns out, it’s quite a lot.

Beyond the world of charts and interactives, there were other amazing ideas. #thetimeofthegame asked people to tweet photos of their TV screen, along with location and the time of the game. These were assembled into an incredible animated collage. This takes data visualization directly into the realms of art and highlights, in ways not possible before, the global nature of sporting events.

Now that FIFA is packing its bags and heading home, I can only imagine what visual delights await us in 2018.

andy cotgreave 2

Andy Cotgreave is Tableau Software’s senior data analyst in the UK. With 16+ years experience battling with good and bad Business Intelligence (BI) tools, Andy has held positions in data analysis, business research and software development. Prior to Tableau, he was a senior data analyst at the University of Oxford. He has also served in positions at Fast Track, RCP Consultants, and RM PLC, giving him a diverse range of technical and non-technical skills. He’s a frequent speaker and has spoken at conferences including Strata London, Oxford Internet Institute and News:Rewired. Andy is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh and holds an MA in Geography. 


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