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From Terabytes to Insights
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
– MARCEL PROUST
INTRODUCTION: A GRANDER VIEW
Where the telescope ends, the microscope begins. Which of the two has the grander view?
From our latest purchase decisions to global population trends, data of all kinds are increasingly swept up and carried along into ever-expanding streams. These surging flows are often so fast, and the volume so massive, they can overwhelm people's capacities to distill the essential elements, derive meanings, and gain insights. We invent tools to solve problems, accomplish tasks, and augment our abilities. We've devised instruments to see distant stars and view subatomic particles; now, people are creating new ways to peer at multiple layers of data that otherwise would be invisible to us. Visualizations offer a way to extend and enhance our innate powers of perception and cognition and get a "grander view" of the world around us.
However, no matter how necessary these visual representations might be or how reliant we've become on them, they don't tell the complete story. The processes that go into making the visualization, the parts you don't typically see, are still key components of the picture. The more you know about what goes into making a visualization, as well as its relative strengths and weaknesses, the more effective a tool it can be. Technology enables us to interact with data on more levels to accomplish objectives ranging from completing simple day-to-day tasks to solving long-term, seemingly intractable problems. Visualizations help us transcend the jumbles of data, allowing us to see more of the stories life has to tell.
THINGS THAT MAKE US SMARTER: HOW THOUGHTFUL VISUALIZATIONS CAN MAKE OUR LIVES BETTER
How have we increased memory, thought and reasoning? By the invention of external aids: it is things that make us smart.
For all of the things you care about most, do you ever wonder whether your decisions are well informed, uninformed, or even misinformed? Digital data of all kinds has the potential to provide us with deeper, more useful insights into many aspects of life. However, the elements we may need or want are typically not delivered to us in convenient little packages; they are heaped before us, strewn around, or stored away in vast repositories. The people who regularly work with data hold some of the keys and codes to unlocking the value held in countless databases. But the tools of access, the things that help make us smarter, don't all have to belong to the relative few. With the help of well-designed visualizations, and an awareness of their strengths and limitations, the doors can be thrown open to far greater numbers of people. Doors can be opened in different ways—from a blunt implement like a battering ram to the precision instruments used by a locksmith. Each approach requires a different level of skill and applies in a different range of instances.
If all the data being collected, distilled, and disseminated about our lives were physical, it would create vast heaps that we would have to step over, sift through, trip on, or walk around. Imagine your computer as a vast storage locker, filling with ever-increasing stuff. There may be crucial items in there, but if you can barely remember, or keep track of, what you have, what good are they to you? Take the analogy a step further, and think of all the boxes in this locker as representing categories of your life: health, finance, work, family, social life, and so on. How do you find, filter, and fact-check all the information to have a clearer understanding and make good choices? Complicating the picture further, we live in a world of flux; depending on the timing and context, we may have a greater or lesser ability to make good decisions. And for some, the ability to rapidly and effectively make decisions from fast-flowing streams of data is an integral part of their work. From emergency rooms to operational command centers, a clear understanding, rapid assessment, and decisive actions based on data can make the difference between life and death.
An amazing quantity and variety of data is theoretically available at our fingertips through smart phones, tablets, and various other devices. It's a veritable "Neurvana" for inquisitive minds. However, the true value is often totally out of reach. We could all be better informed about what matters to us, but the catch is that all the data is useless, or misleading, if we don't know what it means.
The remainder of this section examines some of the ways that data visualization and other emerging approaches can help fill this gap.
Your "peripheral brain"
For many of us, it's not natural to think in purely numerical and mathematical terms. Because of this, it can be difficult to make assessments and decisions as quickly and confidently as we might need to in the moment. However, if we can distribute some of the mental workload required to perform tasks, such as making comparisons between data elements, to various areas of our brains, we can redeploy our overall effort to solve higher order problems. For example, we can engage our visual systems' capacity for sensing difference rather than relying solely on contemplating abstract numbers.
Different types of visualizations can reveal distinct aspects of the world that otherwise would be invisible to us. Although the terminology is not always entirely clear-cut, here's one way to think about two broad categories of technology-enhanced vision: data visualizations provide concrete visual representations of the nonphysical and the abstract such as a statistical trend; scientific visualizations allow people to see hidden physical forms and processes, such as a positron emission tomography (PET) scan that shows the level of metabolic activity in various regions of the brain when performing certain tasks.
Filtering out the noise
It doesn't take much time or effort to open floodgates of information, only to soon need to stem the flow and start dumping the excess—sometimes throwing out the essential along with the marginal in the process. That said, what we consider to be essential and marginal can vary depending on the context and circumstances. It can be a challenge to make easy distinctions and reorder priorities on the fly. Well-executed interfaces and visualizations can help by presenting simple, clear cues that allow us to easily identify and differentiate different kinds of data and information and rearrange them rapidly.
Many kinds of data only matter when they matter. For example, when I drive on the highway, I barely look at my gas gauge, but I'll keep an eye on the speedometer to ensure my speed is in a good range. However, I want my gas gauge in my peripheral vision, and only want it to call attention to itself when I'm low on fuel and need to address it. Even if I'm deep in thought about other things, my little yellow warning light has something important to communicate, and I pay attention when it comes on. For various kinds of purposes, visualizations can apply these basic concepts of threshold detection and peripheral vision to let us know to attend to something when it really matters and not bother us when it doesn't.
Finding needles, haystacks, and things you should look for but didn't realize you wanted
I know there is information available out there that could be very useful and interesting to me, I just don't know where it is or how to find it. It would be nice to be able to scan the "big picture" of a topic or interest and see if there are areas I might want to dive into more deeply.
Our brains are wired to recognize patterns of many varieties. However, as good as humans may be at this form of perception and cognition, some of the most important and useful patterns are not directly available to our senses. For example, aspects of an individual's physiological profile, or a big public health problem, can only be seen and fully understood with the help of data, devices, and displays. Sometimes, even the patterns that are relatively available to our senses can fade from our consciousness and their meanings can disappear. For all us creatures of habit, it might be useful to be able to see patterns in our lives that we are so accustomed to that we actually forget they're there. Maybe our spending or sleeping habits are worse—or better—than we think, if we look at them in aggregate. Again, visualizations can help mirror or "re-present" facets of our lives in compact form and cast them in a useful new light.
Sometimes, seeing patterns is only half the equation. The key is to figure out if they are meaningful and, if so, what to do next. We may want to explore certain patterns of interest further. If we start out with too many details, we could get lost in them. We need to reduce the details to see the larger patterns and relationships, but we also should be able to dissect those patterns to see what they mean and what we might do about them.
Lines of thought
Problem solving and discovery with data have a number of potential departure points and pathways. Here are just a few lines of approach:
Horizon lines. Begin by surveying a broad expanse of data with overviews to search for larger contours, features, and patterns. Data visualizations can be indispensible for being able to view truly immense data sets, such as maps of very large digital networks. However, to be fully useful, they should be highly interactive, responsive, and reasonably easy to use to allow users to navigate to any areas that might suggest a closer look.
Interconnecting lines. Instead of starting with the big picture, an investigation can open with a minute detail. The challenge then becomes seeing how it connects to the bigger picture. The same attributes of interactivity and ease-of-use that are important for starting from the overview, and being able to dive in, are just as necessary, if not more so, for going from the particular to the larger framework in which it resides.
Storylines. Start with a story (theory, thesis, hypothesis) and look for data to confirm or reject it. If individuals do this honestly and persistently, refusing to accept "first impressions," perhaps they've got the temperament of a scientist. When people do it just enough to "make their case," maybe they're more sales-minded, have a political bent, or are simply trying to close a deal. In that case, they might stop looking when they feel they've made their point and might start building the support to defend this point of view.
DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE CHART
Visualizations can help foster a clearer, deeper understanding of a data set and make it easier to communicate that insight to others. In many cases, they can greatly expand the range of people with different perspectives, skills, and expertise, who are able to effectively participate in problem solving. Ironically, despite the potential for visualizations to make data more accessible, many examples can convey a strong impression of inaccessibility. Highly intricate and abstract visualizations reinforce the sense that the data are impenetrable and entirely beyond our grasp. They can make us feel more dependent on others to decrypt the tangled masses of lines and dots, or mosaics of multicolored rectangles in a range of sizes. However, is the complexity of the data always the barrier—or is it sometimes the form and amount that's represented at a given time that is making it seem opaque?
Most of us are very familiar with aspects of data visualization—even though we don't realize it—and we are capable of gaining insights and meaning with just a little context and drawing on our own knowledge and experience. Simple and familiar images will not always be sufficient but, sometimes, less can be more. There are representations that use only a few elements but still pack a meaningful punch. Think about it: you're already familiar with a number of devices that monitor and display dynamic data, as shown in Figures 1.2 and 1.3. You can understand the essential message and the stories their displays convey almost immediately; notice the Code Blue in Figure 1.3 or how about what's shown in Figure 1.4.
Of course, there are many details that we might want to know, such as the magnitude and duration of the earthquake that was measured in Figure 1.5. That's where additional context and interactivity come into play.
Excerpted from Data Insights by Hunter Whitney. Copyright © 2013 Elsevier Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Elsevier.
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Chapter 1 From Terabytes to Insights Chapter 2 A More Beautiful Question Chapter 3 Winning Combinations: Working with the Ingredients of Data Visualization Chapter 4 Pathways, Purposes, and Points of View Chapter 5: Views You Can Use Chapter 6 Thinking…Machines Chapter 7 Hindsight, Foresight, and Insight
Posted December 12, 2012