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Data visualization

A picture is worth more than a thousand words

Brian Romer  Data Visualization Lead, Thomson Reuters Labs – Boston

Brian Romer  Data Visualization Lead, Thomson Reuters Labs – Boston

As data grows ever bigger and more complex, visualization’s power to provide clarity and insight makes it exponentially more valuable than the old saying.

It is estimated that 90 percent of the data in the world has been created in just the last two years. And Big Data gets bigger by the second. Beyond IBM’s famed framework for Big Data (volume, velocity, variety and veracity), there is an increasingly important fifth “V” – visualization. As information grows ever more abundant and complex, separating the signal from the noise is ever more challenging.

“… good data viz gets into your head and leaves a lasting mental model of a fact, trend or process.”

Consider that roughly half of the human brain is devoted to processing visual information. Seventy percent of our sensory receptors are in our eyes – and we process images far faster than text describing the same thing. Data visualization tools, infographics and the like enable analysis of data through the mind’s highest bandwidth portal. They power faster, deeper insight by allowing one to see things in a new way, track change over time, compare disparate data sets and illustrate connections. And frequently they also reveal the hidden beauty of data.

Pre-attentive processing

We could verbally describe a given company’s quarterly returns for the past two years as $132k, $141k, $98k, $104k, $121k, $137k, $189k and $201k, with revenue dropping the second half of the first year, then steadily climbing upward. Or the same information could be encoded as:

Which one is faster to understand?

We are highly visual creatures who have survived on Earth for millennia largely through intellect rather than strength. Our brains devote a huge amount of power to vision, perception and pattern recognition. A recent study from MIT found that people could process images in as little as 13 milliseconds, nearly 10 times faster than was previously measured.

The human brain has an automatic ability to detect small differences, for example, in size or color among similar objects. Data visualization takes advantage of this to deliver information that can be evaluated prior to conscious thinking. As long as the viewer has a contextual understanding of what the colors and symbols refer to, they can parse the story immediately, even before they are consciously aware of doing so.

Defining data visualization

What is data visualization? The short answer: “charts, graphs and maps.”

We have a rich history of data visualization going back to cave drawings (how many animals in the herd); cartography (navigation); maps to solve problems (epidemiology); countless science illustrations to convey the structure of materials, elemental forces and relationships of living things; the humble but effective bar chart; to network diagrams, tree maps, stream graphs and more; and now interactive, animated and experimental visualizations made with computer code, limited only by our imagination.

The long answer: the art and practice of representing information and relationships, often obscured or intangible, through a visual language. According to Wikipedia, they are graphic visual representations of information, data or knowledge intended to present complex information quickly and clearly.

The following terms (and more) have all been used to describe a range of methods for showing information: infographic, visualization, information design, information graphics, data visualization and interactive visualization.

Information design

The brain processes pictures all at once, but processes text in a linear fashion – simply put, it takes much longer to obtain information from text. It is estimated that 65% of the population are visual learners (as opposed to auditory or kinesthetic), so the visual nature of infographics caters to a large portion of the population. Online trends, such as the increasingly short attention span of Internet users, have also contributed to the increasing popularity and effectiveness of infographics.

When designing the visual aspect of an infographic, a number of considerations must be made to optimize the effectiveness of the visualization. The six components of visual encoding are spatial, marks, connection, enclosure, retinal properties and temporal encoding. Each can be utilized to represent relationships between different types of data; however, studies have shown that spatial position is the most effective way to represent numerical data and leads to the fastest and easiest understanding by viewers.

There are also three basic communication tenets that need to be considered when designing data visualizations – appeal, comprehension and retention. Appeal is the need to engage one’s audience. Comprehension means the viewer should be able to easily understand the information presented to them. And retention means that the viewer should easily retain the data or insight presented by the infographic.

Trends: more sophisticated, more prevalent, more shared

As visual media evolves and becomes more sophisticated, we are exposed to more refined and higher caliber visualizations. Data visualization literacy is on the rise.

Universities now offer classes in information design, and there are growing communities around the practice as evidenced in conferences, blogs, podcasts, coding meet-ups and other events.

Making your own maps and charts is easier than it’s ever been due to high-quality (and often free) software tools. We’ve seen the same democratization of access in the fields of photography, music and film editing.

“Without visualization, data is just an account of the facts, but with it, data has the ability to inspire and transform the way people see the world around them.”

Curated truth

Journalistic photography and documentary films both share a primary purpose of showing true facts, but every image is shot from someone’s perspective and picked over others to tell a story. Data visualizations are editorial in the same way: They represent true data, but choosing how and what to show is a balance of science and art. The map is not the territory; it’s a distillation from a human point of view.

The process of creating a visualization often involves discovering contradictions along the way. One can’t necessarily predefine a viewpoint and make the visual to support it; one must explore the data, retain an open mind and often adapt as the story emerges.

Journalistic storytelling

Today, major news organizations, including Reuters, create deeper, richer, multimedia stories that can include images, audio, video, charts, maps and interactive elements. For complex stories and datasets, there’s a big advantage to adding an explanatory, step-by-step narrative layer to the visualization to guide the viewer gradually through the elements presented.

It’s an exciting time for data visualization. The amount of data and number of their sources will only increase, making the practice of visualization more challenging and more indispensable. Graphical representations of information are key tools for professionals in business, finance and science, giving them immediate insight as they refine their work. Visualizations are also an amazing communication channel for news and presentations, connecting viewers directly with the key elements of the story. They provide bigger impact, improved shareability and enhanced storytelling. They drive engagement with content and connection with ideas. The field is vibrant and bright, and its future is full of potential.

Great data visualizations

The best data visualizations accomplish these simple, yet hard-to-combine, things:

  1. Surprise: We’re great at pattern recognition, but shapes that are too plain or predictable don’t capture our attention. Outliers, peaks, gaps, exceptions to the rule and thwarted expectations are often the most interesting and noteworthy parts.
  2. Delight: Beautiful pieces that have a sense of joy, play or discovery are not just prettier and more fun, but we spend more time with them. They stick in our memories and we share them with others.
  3. Inform: Great visualizations are teaching tools that accurately encode values and relationships and efficiently convey information. They stand the test of time and retain utility long after they’re created.

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