Communication Through Great Data Visualization
Why data visualization is more than just a pretty picture in an era of constant and global connectivity.
A well constructed chart or infographic is more than just an opportunity for the intelligent and often beautiful analysis of data. Data visualization, done right, is a powerful tool for communication. Humans have recognized this since the 18th century, when Playfair turned rich economic data into new kinds of visual interpretations: line, bar, and pie charts. Today, software is packaged and sold with the express purpose of generating charts and visualizations that have changed little in the last three centuries. The hyper growth of new data through digitization and our continuous desire to measure everything means it’s imperative that we understand what makes data visualization speak louder than words or text.
Images as a modern form of communicating
We live in a time where human connectivity is unparalleled in both how fast and how far we can reach out. Barring censorship, billions of people have the potential to see this article within moments of its publishing. The power of this instantaneous communication has given rise to the use of images as popular mediums — no pun intended. Snapchat and PopKey may be the first applications that come to mind, but we also rely on images in the form of data visualizations built into stock charts, fitness apps, and smart thermostats. The summarization or analysis of data through a neatly compact chart is a wildly quick and efficient way to consume information by comparison to scrolling through text or observing each of the datum individually.
Numbers are universal
“Numbers constitute the only universal language” ~Nathanael West
With the exploding growth of connectivity, the universal language of math could never be more applicable. Math’s lack of a language barrier is largely what makes it such an approachable form of communicating. The visualization of the math reduces that barrier further. The brain is very efficient at processing the difference between two quantities in a bar chart or determining a positive or negative trend in a line chart or scatter plot.
People, not numbers, suffer from bias
Perhaps the most substantial aspect of math and in turn, data visualization, is its inherent lack of bias. Although it is left up to the creator to represent data sets fairly, the numbers themselves have no agenda or opinion. This particular fact is exploited frequently both on purpose and by accident. Often times, the desire for a particular outcome will push someone to favor data sets or math that “agrees” with them. Similarly, one may succumb to the classic correlation/causation problem. These issues are not due to the data or the visualization itself. Instead they are a product of the author’s agenda or the reader’s interpretation.
Examples in the wild
Over the years, I have been an off-and-on follower of the web comic XKCD. One of my favorite posts is one entitled, Money. Setting aside the humor, this post contains a data visualization that succeeds at providing a frame of reference to almost any reader — though I’d love to see a smaller version that was less overwhelming! The data sets are managed mostly consistently to avoid confusion and, best of all, it is beautifully unbiased. Though the artist may have their own agenda, the visualization itself is simply a (very large) illustration of facts. The call to action is for the reader to consume and think about the disparity between the quantities. What could easily be a tome in text length describing each data set is made approachable, and helps the reader compare quantities that are often unfathomable.
As the amount of data we produce grows at an alarming rate, we rely more and more on data analysis for problem solving, decision making, and extracting intelligence. Visualization of that analysis is key to effectively communicating and can even reveal things that the statistics alone may miss. Understanding the power behind data visualization enables you to see more than the angled lines connecting the dots.