Posts Tagged ‘Theme: Data Visualization’

Post by Ruthanna Gordon

I have a confession to make: I am not the world’s most visual thinker.  I like language.  I like finding the exact right word, Mark Twain’s “lightning” rather than his “lightning bug.”  By default, I think in blocks of text.  I have learned, through long experience, that this annoys people.  With some effort, I now remember to put pictures into my presentations and blog posts.

This is a little odd, because when I’m reminded, I actually learn as much from a good visual aid as anyone else.  I pour over XKCD’s intricate and amusing charts for informational tidbits. And the examples from this TED talk made my jaw drop with the sudden rush of clarity.  But somehow, I can still forget to look for—or create—the right visualization if it isn’t dropped in my lap.

Psychology suggests that my flaw isn’t all that unusual. Most people find imagery incredibly helpful—and most default to representing information verbally.  Some time back, a group of researchers asked people to solve a problem.  They had to determine the most efficient order of processes in a hypothetical, given several constraints.  When people were explicitly told to draw a diagram, they came up with better solutions, more quickly.  Yet those who just got the problem rarely used this strategy spontaneously.

Images are easier to remember than visual descriptions.  A picture is not only worth a thousand words, it takes considerably fewer mental resources.  Images require us to ground even the most abstract ideas in specific, concrete details.  Since most of our cognitive abilities have evolved to deal with a specific, concrete world, imagery invokes all our most effective and efficient mental abilities.

We have some instinct for this advantage with kids.  In elementary school, students who have trouble reading may be given playsets to help them follow along—a toy farmhouse with animals that can be moved to fit story descriptions, for example. Those beginning addition or subtraction are given colored blocks to play with, and shown how to push them together or pull them apart to illustrate equations.

These innovations help children overcome bumps in learning, and stay ahead long term.  Yet, as we get older, we tend to dismiss the need for such aids.  It feels a bit like counting on your fingers.  It shouldn’t, though.  Visualization is at the heart of the way we think.

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Data visualization can be as bland as a bar graph, or bring numbers and relationships to vivid life.  What makes the difference in good data visualization?  And what are your favorite examples?

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Post by Minna Krejci

The average person might not be familiar with many of the different methods that exist for visualizing data.  But chances are, you’ve seen word clouds.

As more and more information becomes readily available and people have less time and attention to give to any one item (article, website, blog, etc.), it becomes more and more important to make information easily accessible.  A word cloud is a visual tool that allows you to quickly get a sense for a collection of words — something like the text of a website, an article, a speech, a document, etc.  Usually, the words are sized based on the frequency with which they appear (i.e., the words that are used the most are the biggest).

Let’s play a little game.  Can you guess what the following word clouds represent?  (Keep reading to see the answers and the sources.)

© 2009 Jonathan Feinberg



Answers in order (click on the links for the source and more information):

Beatles UK hit singles 1962-1970
Words used to describe coffee
Words from a company’s customer satisfaction survey

The US Constitution

Master degress

TED talks

Terms related to trigonometry

Terms related to Web 2.0

The lyrics of John Lennon’s “Imagine”

Now that you know the answers, go back and take a look at the word clouds again.  Some of these were definitely harder than others, but I think it’s pretty clear that you can gather a lot of information about the subject rather quickly.

This method of representing data can obviously be quite powerful.  Its use has exploded recently in politics, as a means to quickly represent the platforms of different candidates, or to summarize a speech.  Personally, I think that it actually runs the risk of overuse in this context — can we really learn everything we need to know about a person’s viewpoint just by looking at the frequency at which he/she uses certain words?  It’s useful, sure, but it seems like the arrangement of the words should matter as well… isn’t that why we learned grammar?

Just for fun, let’s take a look at our own MASI blog and see what we get.  I made this cloud at www.tocloud.com, using the first two pages of posts on our blog:

Ok, so mine might not be as pretty as the ones above, but I think you can get a pretty good sense for what we’re about, eh?

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Post by Henderson

You know what data visualization is.  Don’t you?

Literally, it is taking data (little bits of information) and placing this into an agreeable format (picture, graph, etc…) that is supposed to provide meaningful information, quickly.

If you’re on LinkedIn or Facebook or some other social networking site, chances are that you’re connected to at least 10 – 15 people.  Family, friends, co-workers, contact, etc… you name it.  They, also, are connected to 10-15 people, and so on.  Hence the word network.

Each one of these people are… you guessed it, data; who, what, when, where, how, and why are all there.  It’s even combined into a nice, standardized, profile page for you to view and interact with.  No muss, no fuss.

More importantly, though, this collection of networks says something meaningful about you.  It gives someone an informative snapshot as to who you are and what associations you keep.  Good for employers and the like.

But say you have just a few moments to get your point across in one picture.  How can you convey meaning to a potential viewer in seconds?  Make a map.

LinkedIn has a really cool tool for you to map your networks.  Here’s mine:

This is my data, visualized.  If this is all filled out, you can see that I have contacts in the science, art, and political fields.  I’ve volunteered for political campaigns and worked for a women’s shelter.  And so on…

So, from this, what does data visualization mean?  Far from my personal networks, it means that people can get necessary information faster and more effectively through the growing mound of supporting data.

This isn’t just good in personal networks, it’s also good when presenting data on which budgets, policy, and livelihoods are based.  Tracking CO2 emissions, tracking the path of the Gulf Oil leak, and recording confirmations of the H1N1 virus.

Now this doesn’t mean that all the data is correct.  You’d still have to do the homework on that, but it does ensure that your message can be understood by most anyone and your idea can be acted upon.

Check out a few of these sites and see some of the great thing people are doing to present data.  Do you have any favorite sites?

Genome visualization

Leisure and poverty


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