The other day I happened to catch a glimpse of one of my daughter's laptop screens, and saw this screaming headline: 2012 in Data Visualizations. It startled me -- I expected to see something like Facebook or a streamed TV program. Could she really be interested in data visualizations?
Alas, no. I mean, yes, she admitted to finding some data visualizations, like those presented, to be pretty cool. The piece, compiled by the BuzzFeed staff, showcased visuals used to present catchy, at-a-glance information on major events like the Olympics, the US presidential election, and Superstorm Sandy, as well as curiosities like Kobe Bryant and his 30,000 career points, alien life form calculations, and beats per song played on repeat. But she had stumbled upon the catchy visuals merely by chance, while checking out other stuff on BuzzFeed.
Analytics professionals, and anybody else working with data, can't afford to have such a cavalier interest in visualizations. Heck, neither can my daughter, really. Though just a college kid today, soon enough she'll be in the business world and using data visualizations on a regular basis -- make no mistake about that.
Presenting information visually isn't new. But doing so in a way that factors in analytics is really now just on the upswing. As BuzzFeed writes: "Data visualizations. Infographics. Maps. Information design. No matter how you call it, 2012 was the year data science and design started going steady."
And if that was the case for 2012, this year, we can expect the use of data visualizations to blossom. The International Institute for Analytics certainly thinks so. Among its seven predictions for 2013 is that insight will get more visual.
And don't be shortsighted. This isn't just about presenting easy-to-digest visual material in business. Data visualizations are also critical for their ability to help analysts spot patterns in the data. All the better when the visualizations are interactive. Tweak this or that, and voila!, see -- really see -- the ramifications in an instant.
Let’s say you need to understand thousands or even millions of rows of data, and you have a short time to do it in. The data may come from your team, in which case perhaps you’re already familiar with what it’s measuring and what the results are likely to be. Or it may come from another team, or maybe several teams at once, and be completely unfamiliar. Either way, the reason you’re looking at it is that you have a decision to make, and you want to be informed by the data before making it. Something probably hangs in the balance: a customer, a product, or a profit.
How are you going to make sense of all that information efficiently so you can make a good decision? Data visualization is an important answer to that question.
But please don't confuse data visualizations with visual eye candy. As Steele noted, data visualizations only provide true business value when they "expose something new about the underlying patterns and relationships contained within the data." That's when they serve a useful purpose in decision making.
First of all, infographics and data visualizations are different animals. Infographics are best for visual storytelling and can sum up bite-size amounts of data in a quick, easy, compelling way. They require less time to create, but can be effective. Data visualizations, on the other hand, are useful for showing patterns in data. It requires more from the user as far as data sifting, cleaning and analyzing, but can also tell effective stories.
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