Data visualization: not just for experts anymore

Depending on how you look at it, “Big Data” is either a blessing or a curse. Some organizations see it as a daunting challenge to their ability to analyze and understand it. Others see it as key to new insights, cures, solutions and advances.

But that’s the crux of Big Data, isn’t it? No, not whether you view it negatively or positively, but literally how you look at it. Big Data is meaningless unless it can be analyzed and interpreted. For management to do that, they need to be able to easily interpret it and draw conclusions from it.

Historical stock price data plotted as 3-D graphs

The key to being able to do that is data visualization, and data visualization is becoming ever more crucial in enabling senior managers in many fields – including finance, online engagement, climate, energy, manufacturing and agriculture – to evaluate Big Data without special technological expertise or assistance.

In a TDWI Research report last fall, David Stodder called data visualization “one of the great innovations of our time.” “Quantitative communication through graphical representation of data and analytical concepts is essential to surviving amid the deluge of data flowing through our world,” he wrote. He added that data visualization sits at the confluence of such factors as technology, the study of human perception and graphical interfaces, and “can contribute significantly to the fruitful interpretation and sharing of insights.”

As David Brooks wrote in the February 4 New York Times, “Technology has rewarded graphic artists who visualize data.”

A graphic visualization of global environment indicators

Perhaps the most important developments in data visualization today are the strides being made in making it easily understood and interpreted by a lay audience – in other words, not requiring technical expertise or an analytical background to interpret and understand.

“The best visualizations cause you to see something you weren’t expecting, and allow you to act on it,” commented Amanda Cox, the Times graphics editor, in the Harvard Business Review last March. In their innovative use of graphic, statistical and analytical tools, Cox and her colleagues have made the Times a leader in data visualization.

That work, she said, has provided her team with this insight: “When I first started, I thought design was ten minutes to ‘make it [the technical analysis] cute’ at the end that I could talk someone into doing for me. Now I know that design thinking needs to be involved from conception.”

Data visualization from Google Earth

Likewise, by Jim Strikeleather, executive strategist, Innovation for Dell Services, emphasized the importance of the end-user in a Harvard Business Review blog post last April. Data visualization, he said, must be developed with an understanding of the audience; it must set up a clear framework; and it must tell a story.

Many examples of data visualization are available at the federal website www.data.gov. To view an especially effective example – providing a dynamic look at climate data and trends – view the visuals available at http://www.nnvl.noaa.gov/view.

This post originally appeared in CapsuleScape, the blog of Capsule Design in Minneapolis.

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One Comment on “Data visualization: not just for experts anymore”

  1. Jon Austin says:

    Patrick –

    I I agree with the overall premise of your post that the spread of data visualization is a good thing and is probably one of the best ways most of us will be able to interpret big data sets.

    I say “think” because my concern is that as data visualization tools and big data sets become more accessible, they will do for data analysis what PowerPoint has done for presentations and meetings: make it possible for any idiot to “analyze” and present data whether it’s meaningful or not. And, because the idiots will say things like, “This illustration is derived from a data set of 17 bazillion records” it will be accepted as “true.”

    But…on balance I’ll take empowering the idiots as a necessary side effect of adding new tools to the toolbox.

    Have a great day!

    – Austin


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