The Wide World of Data

Trends / Technology
Jonathan Kitchen
Rebecca Rom-Frank
Jan 31, 2023
There has never been more data.

Every day, 5 billion global Internet users generate an estimated 2.5 quintillion bytes of data per day, amounting to 79 zettabytes of data generated in 2021 alone—and that number will continue to double every year.1 Every time we take a photo, send a text message, or smash the like, we generate data, which tech companies have made billions of dollars selling.2 

It’s overwhelming, and popular visualizations of data as an abstract concept have historically represented it that way: often as a kind of conjured magic, or as glowing constellations that are as vast and mysterious as a faraway galaxy. At Getty Images, “data” is a mainstay in our top 25 global customer searches, and searches for "data privacy" have grown +17% year‑over‑year, which indicates that companies need to communicate a point of view on data as a concept. So, how can brands visualize all kinds of data in a way that reflects the clarity, transparency, and privacy that consumers are hoping to see now?
The rise of the infographic
More information means more of a need to make sense of it all. In 2022, Getty Images customers searched for “infographic” about as many times as they did for “metaverse”, the buzzword du jour. Statistical data visualization has been around since ancient Babylonian mapmaking, but infographics have more recently entered the public consciousness as a standard form of communication—think about the often‑refreshed Covid heat maps on the front pages of news sites during the pandemic, or the attractively designed, shareable stats on social media, particularly during social and political movements in 2020. The increased appetite for bite‑sized statistics even means that an infographic is now 30x more likely to be read than an article on the same topic.3 Clearly, images which reflect a creative ordering of data resonate with the everyday consumer’s desire for simplified information, as well as the current visual landscape online.    

Charts and graphs have long been relegated to dry business or educational visuals, but amongst our most‑used visual content, colorful, artistic representations of statistical data are beginning to rise to the top. In the age of computer‑generated data overload, graphic elements that appear hand‑drawn, collaged, or artfully scattered are likely to become more popular, as they connote that a much‑needed human touch or thought process has made sense of all the information. 
Data is dynamic
"Data" is a popular search term amongst our customers, but while it's the #17 search for still images, it clocks in as the #2 most popular search for video. In 2022, our customers used slightly more video to represent the concept of "data" than stills, and the most‑used clips demonstrate how data proliferates, generates, connects, flows, and moves upwards, in the case of financial visuals. Video appears to be the preferred medium to represent data, because it can convey a compelling message for future‑thinking brands.

In both stills and video, however, data is beginning to look a bit less abstract. Back in 2015, “data” was visually represented far more generally than it is now: abstract waves of binary code, cyberspace tunnels, and dark server rooms have now largely given way to scenarios and iconography that specify what type of data is being referenced. Data is beginning to look more streamlined, with symbols such as emojis, speech bubbles, or flowcharts transposed over moving or still images‑closer to the actual graphical user interfaces that most of the world uses on a daily basis. Now that people are more comfortable with the everyday presence of data,4 we will continue to see visuals which further clarify its use and purpose.
Data privacy on a global scale
Data privacy is a global concern, but government policies have always varied between regions—until now. International scuffles over the alleged privacy violations of TikTok’s Chinese parent company are drawing attention to the challenges of compliance on a global scale.5 The US has been notorious for its lax user protections, but over half of all US states are adopting policies that align more closely to the European Union’s GDPR, which posits that data privacy is a right.6 Around the world, governments are beginning to strengthen online user protections as consumers wake up to the realities of how their data is being used.7

On the advent of a potential shift to Web3, consumer attitudes are becoming more clear‑cut. Our latest VisualGPS global consumer survey found that 8 in 10 want to own their data and choose how it’s used, while feelings about the benefits of personalized technology are beginning to sour. Locks, shields, and fingerprints have long been the dominant visual symbols of cybersecurity and privacy online—indicative of the need to keep others out, or to trade biometric data for personalized security. However, as the paradigm of user protections shifts around the world, this topic might be better visualized by symbols of digital freedom, independence, and ownership. After all, the data itself indicates that this is what global users hope for the future.
[1] First Site Guide
[2] Domo
[3] Demand Sage
[4] Forbes
[5] Fortune
[6] Reuters
[7] CNBC
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