As McCandless’ talk emphasizes, there is just an unprecedented amount of data on the Internet, waiting to be scooped up and scanned for patterns and stories. He’s certainly found some interesting visual stories to tell. For instance, he mined 10,000 Facebook status updates to map the most popular days and months for couples to break up (Mondays, April). He Googled statistics about plane crashes to show how passengers can try to increase their luck (sit in the back, don’t fly in August). Data is “a fertile, creative medium” for journalists, which we can “irrigate with networks and connectivity,” he says. “Data is the new soil.”

Most exciting for me, someone who barely knows how to create a new blog post, is the part towards the middle of the talk when McCandless talks about all he’s been able to accomplish despite his relative lack of experience. He’s never been to design school, was a writer for most of his career, and only recently taught himself programming through trial and error. He says it was easier than he expected, that years of exposure to visual media “had instilled a kind of dormant design literacy” in him that he could instinctively draw on. He assures us that he’s not alone on that, either.

Feeling inspired? I spoke a few weeks ago with Chris Wilson and David Plotz from Slate about how easy it is to learn a few basics of computer programming and data-mining. Before you design a solid data visualization, you have to have the data. Wilson recommended starting with simple tools like screen-scraper, which automates the otherwise tedious copying and pasting of data from online sites. The Q&A is in two parts, here and here.

In the meantime, go on over to McCandless’ site, Information is Beautiful, and explore some more of his projects. Be prepared to lose a few hours out of your day, though. (I did.)

(h/t Nieman Lab’s Twitter and Flowing Data.)

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner