Visualize this: the benefits of data visualization
By Karen Rothwell
Data visualization is a representation of information with the goal of providing the reader with a clear understanding of the information contents.
We strive to report on the intelligence we gather in the marketplace in meaningful yet creative ways that will garner the attention of executives that can act on it. One of the challenges with reporting on complex or heavy amounts of data is how to portray it in a way that is manageable, interesting and easy for the consumer to digest. Data visualization is becoming an increasingly popular tool for portraying and distributing complicated information in creative ways.
What is data visualization?
Data visualization is a representation of information with the goal of providing the reader with a clear understanding of the information contents. The information can be data, numbers, processes, concepts, relations, etc.
Typically the quantity of information is dense and substantial or the nature of the data is complex. This information can often be overwhelming if just viewed in its raw form. Data visualization uses maps, charts, graphs, animation and other means to represent the information in a way that is easy to digest and understand.
With today’s technology, the data can be viewed in multiple ways and enhanced via interactive techniques resulting in a more effective way of distributing data findings and, ideally, an engaged viewer.
Data journalist David McCandless has made a career of turning complex data sets (like worldwide military spending, media buzz, Facebook status updates) into beautiful, simple diagrams that tease out unseen patterns and connections. Good design, he suggests, is the best way to navigate the information glut facing us all today.
According to McCandless, “The good news is there might be an easy solution to that, and that's using our eyes more. Visualizing information, so that we can see the patterns and connections that matter and then designing that information so it makes more sense, or it tells a story, or allows us to focus only on the information that's important. Failing that, visualized information can just look really cool.”
A key takeaway for intelligence analysts is that we can use visualization tools not only to communicate complex findings in captivating ways but to help focus our internal customer on what is most important — the “so what” in our reporting of intelligence.
Application of data visualization tools
Not only is data visualization an effective medium but visualization is an inroad to get the attention of your peers in a world of information overload. In many ways, we compete with top newspapers and industry journals for the attention of senior executives, so whatever you can do to make your intelligence findings stand out will be critical in getting their notice and time. Another benefit of data visualization tools is its effectiveness in doing trend analysis. The ability to use visuals to spot trends can be much more effective than a long written report explaining the same thing.
The website Gapminder uses data visualization to report on the world’s most important trends. It’s a fascinating tool that reports on global trends in a way that static graphs or statistics are unable to do. In their wealth and health of nations example, Gapminder shows a country by country comparison of how long people live and how much money they earn across a 200 year period.
Data visualization tools
There are a number of data visualization tools in the marketplace — too many to report on in this article. My intent is only to highlight this as a possible option in seeking new and creative ways to report on data.
Many tools today like Gapminder are focused on dissecting world trends in a way that makes sense for consumers of news. One does not need to be a data or research expert to interpret the findings, which makes the tool that much more compelling to use. While trend analysis might not be your sole responsibility, this tool may have application across your other responsibilities.
Some data visualization tools that I came across on the Web that you may want to consider investigating include:
- Google Public Data Explorer & Google Fusion Tabs
- Many Eyes
In summary, data visualization tools are effective in portraying complex or vast quantities of data. This type of tool, which relies on animated or interactive maps, charts and graphs represents information in a way that is easy to digest and interpret.
Particularly effective for doing trend analysis, data visualization excels in telling a story in a way that other tools cannot. Most importantly data visualization creatively gets the attention of your peers and has the potential to engage them and draw them in to your insight and analysis, an increasingly important asset in today’s world of information overload.