Friday, December 14, 2012

Data Insights: Some notes, questions, and quotes

One of the main ideas in Data Insights: New Ways to Visualize and Make Sense of Data, Hunter Whitney's book, is that you should approach information with an open, exploratory mindset, rather than with inflexible expectations.

Maybe it was because I was not paying attention at that piece of advice that this book surprised me so much. I was expecting to read an academic, textbook-like intro to data visualization and, instead, what Hunter offers is a collection of short chapters, thoughts, tips, aphorisms, and interviews that confused me at first. At a second look, though, once I went through all the sticky notes I pasted on the pages of the book —I pasted a lot of them— its backbone became much clearer. It also helped that Hunter answered a couple of quick questions over e-mail:

Q: What is Data Insights about?

A: "Data Insights seeks to show the extent to which data visualization has penetrated into our daily lives  as well as into the sciences in a deep and varied way, making it ever more important and relevant, while also projecting ways that it could penetrate even further  to make it useful and relevant in ways most people haven't  even considered."

"To accompany that overview, the book provides a summary of the concerns that we need to be aware of and examine so that this resource is used effectively, correctly, and with the proper amount of care to prevent errors and miscommunication. In addition, the book provides a primer on just what happens in data visualization and how to use it to communicate important information."

"I personally believe that whoever you are, it is important to develop a more holistic sense of the  entire process that goes into creating visualizations and working with data. A general awareness of some of the important issues and concepts, even outside one’s own purview, is a good thing."

"The book intentionally has multiple entry points. There will be a range of users  who will know certain aspects very well and others who don't. I’ve tried to make this approachable so readers can still benefit from reading cover to cover. That said, they can also easily dive in to topics they find of interest."

Q: What led you to write the book?

A: "I’ve been interested in data and information visualization for a long time. That said, the  precipitating event for the book occurred a few years ago, when I attended a conference where the panel showed many interactive  visualizations.  I am a UX Designer and I asked the panelists for their  thoughts about making data and visualizations accessible to a wider range of users. I felt  there was more to the answer than what I heard that day and started to write about the subject to explore it further."

I have extracted some of my favorite quotes from Data Insights to give you a feeling of what you will find in it:

On complex data visualizations:
"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 or 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?"

On useless infographics:
"In many instances, it is simply not worth spending a lot of time or effort doing an infographic. The reason some of the current infographics are problematic is that they often do not illuminate the information at all. If you can read the story without looking at the graphic and know just as much then as after you've looked at the graphic, what's the point?"

"Just because a complex problem is presented in a cartoon format, doesn't mean that it's any clearer or easier to understand. I'd rather have a theoretical physicist explain the expansion of the universe than, say, Captain Galactic, if the former understands it well enough to say it simply."

On the need to stick to the basics at first:
"Whether it's cooking or data visualizations, combining a variety of elements is both an art and a science, and the less practice and experience you have, the more you may need to rely on existing guidelines and "recipes" to start off. These recipes represent the distilled trials, errors, calculations, and experiences or predecessors —the collective wisdom of how to form raw elements into a well-done final preparation. Yes, there is often much room for improvisation and experimentation, but there's also a basic order and process for many of the steps along the way. You don't fold in the eggs after you've baked the cake. The more familiar you are with the fundamentals, the more free you can be in experimentation and innovation or, simply stated, the more comfortable you'll be with using visualizations, creating them, or both."