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Data Visualization

Illustration of the Milky Way galaxy with an arrow pointing to the outer regions and the words "You Are Here"Big Data has a tendency to make us feel very small. The digital universe is large and getting larger, doubling in size every two years. All those numbers taken from everyday life have changed the way we live, as companies use algorithms to offer customized services and experiences that were once unimaginable.

This newfound power to recognize and predict patterns in human behavior presents opportunities and challenges. We have access to more information than ever before, but can we make sense of it?

Math for dummies
Mathematics plays a vital role in our quest to understand the world we live in.

The great book of nature can be read only by those who know the language in which it was written. And this language is mathematics. – Galileo

Unfortunately, most of us only read words and pictures. We like stories.

The rapid growth of available data has been matched by a similar growth in attempts to translate math into a language we understand. Complex subjects are summarized by making the math visual. Behold, the rise of the infographic!

Problems without solutions
The popularity of infographics as a way to quickly educate an audience hides one very inconvenient truth – they are incredibly difficult to do well. Unlike a mathematical formula, you can’t just plug in some numbers and produce an answer.

Charts, diagrams, and illustrations all have the power to convey vast amounts of information. If a graphic doesn’t bring clarity to the chaos, your reader must decide whether or not to spend time digesting it. (Hint: They won’t.) If it’s as easy to digest as a Twinkie – and just as nutritious – you’ve missed the opportunity to enlighten.

Short stories
The scarcest resource of the 21st century is human attention. Designers are up against it when attempting to quickly display loads of dense information in a single, compelling graphic. One must understand both the audience and the story you want to tell them. Do they have two hours, two minutes, or two seconds to get your point?

Under the direction of the most skilled practitioners, a great data visualization has a clear narrative. It provides context in both logical and unexpected ways and leaves the audience richer for the experience. Such a deft touch is uncommon.

Far more common is the jumbled collection of anecdotes, arrows, and armies of gender-neutral figures against a backdrop of colorful, oversized numbers. The infographic is supposed to say something, but seems designed to distract.

It’s as if someone took random pages from a handful of sources, stapled them together, and called it a story.

Distilled insight
A primary goal of data visualization is to make information more accessible, understandable, and usable. Though the amount of information is increasing by the day, the amount of useful information almost certainly isn’t. Most of it is just noise.

No matter how much data exists, correlations and insights do not magically appear by themselves. Data is only as useful as the people interpreting it.

An abundance of information requires inquiry and analysis to extract meaning. An ability to edit is more important than the choice of bar graphs or pie charts. Designers have the skills to help determine what is necessary and what is not. The trick is in bravely drawing and defending that line.

Big outcomes
Modern life is enriched by data in countless ways. However, there is a shortage of people who can both tame the data and tell you what to do with it. Data visualization is one way to bring focus to what’s important and prompt behavior change.

Before you jump on the infographic bandwagon, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is my information suited to an infographic?
    Don’t try to force a square peg into a round hole. Choose the best method to clearly communicate your message, not the trendiest.
  • Am I trying to do too much?
    It’s your job to deliver the needle in the haystack, not just scatter the hay. The most common pitfall of the infographic is including everything. When in doubt, leave it out.
  • What is the story?
    Focus on the idea, not the numbers, and your design choices should become much clearer.
  • What is the desired response?
    Life is not theoretical. Any data visualization is only as valuable as its ability to prompt thought and action.

To paraphrase the ancient mariner, there is data, data everywhere, yet scarcely a drop to drink. Those who can give numbers context, and connect them to a compelling story, will prove to be very valuable.

Related content:

How a Civil War Vet Invented the American Infographic

Spurious Correlations

Clarity vs Memorability: Which is More Important to Data Visualization?