Thursday, July 14, 2011

Data visualization more common, more important

I've written a lot about data and data visualization. A few weeks ago I even awarded "The Person's Choice Award for Foundation Data Presentation" to the Knight Foundation for their great work on interpreting and sharing what they've learned from their Knight News Challenge.

One sign of just how important it is becoming to present information in these engaging ways is the advent of "commodified, off the shelf" visualization tools. These are online, free software programs that will take your data and slap it on a map or make a few graphs for you. In many ways this was started when Microsoft started embedding shared templates into Excel and Powerpoint - within a few years certain ways of seeing information presented became very common in certain circles. Since then, more interesting visuals have become available online. One site - Many Eyes - has long been available. The newest of these sites, - turn your tweets into a "solographic." Here's mine:

All I did to make that picture was load my twitter account into the link that I received in email. The point of is to "Show your data." They have dozens of different presentation formats available. They've taken the "art form" of these cool infographics and made it readily available.

So, what's left? Well, the hard stuff is left. Not that art is easy - but there are certain common ways of presenting data that these kinds of online visualization tools will make ever more common. Excel made it easy to make bar and pie charts. These tools will make it easy to make bubble and infographics. But it still matters that you use the right picture for the right data for the right story. In fact, the more common these pictures become, the more important the ability to understand the story in the data becomes.

You still need to know what you're trying to say. You still need to know what kinds of data you have or where to find the data you need for your purposes. You still need to know what kind of data representation (picture) helps make what kind of point. We all need to get better at reading the nuance, understanding the differences, and thinking through the implications of these cool pictures. No doubt about it, a picture is worth 1000 words. Especially if it shows us something we can't see in the raw numbers or raw words, shows relationships we wouldn't otherwise find, or sparks new questions. If not, it's just a cool picture.


Jeff Stanger said...

Great post. Especially like, "So, what's left? Well, the hard stuff is left" and "the more common these pictures become, the more important the ability to understand the story in the data becomes." Absolutely. You know where I come from on this Lucy -- all the more reason to integrate the design/programming/etc process with the gathering of the information to prevent it from becoming "pretty picture making."

Jake Garcia said...

I agree that the story-telling element is important. At the Foundation Center, we're also grappling with the next step – how to empower foundations to make strategic decisions based on those stories, and how to be as honest as possible about the conclusions that can be drawn from those stories, which, in some cases, are two counteracting forces. We recently won a prize from the World Bank for a mapping app that we built, showing U.S. foundation funding and World Bank funding for agriculture projects around the world. It showed that some countries, like Angola, seemed to be overlooked (in terms of agricultural project funding) over the past decade. Now, to us at the Foundation Center, that's a juicy story. But, in reality, the picture we painted wasn’t complete -- there are several other sources of development aid that we weren't capturing, like direct funding from OECD countries (like the U.S., Germany, Japan, etc.). And we weren't factoring in the comparative *need* for agricultural funding in different countries. So, on the one hand, we want to say, "Hey, here's an opportunity to make a difference!" and, on the other hand, we also have to say, "There's probably a lot more to this story than this."

So, the balancing act involves telling a compelling, simple, at-a-glance story, while also being truthful and appropriately nuanced. Then – and perhaps most importantly – the next goal is figuring out the answer to the question, "Does this help foundations make strategic decisions?" That's a lot to ask out of a map or a chart, but that's what we're gunning for!

Jake Garcia
GIS Developer
The Foundation Center