Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Success in visualization: Perhaps we worry too much

Enrico Bertini, Andy Kirk, and others have been asking themselves recently why we don't see more examples of 'success' in visualization. Here's Enrico:
Why I never stumble into an article or blog post showing, I don’t know, for instance, how visualization helped a group of doctors doing something remarkable with visualization?
He proposes three reasons:
1. Impactful visualization is hidden.
2. Visualization is just a fragment of a much larger process.
3. Visualization impact has yet to come.
I don't have time to participate in this conversation right now —it's the end of the semester at UM and my schedule for next month is simply insane— so let me just say that this is a relevant topic to analyze, but perhaps we are worrying too much for no good reason. There are thousands of little success stories related to visualization and infographics every single day. There's success every time that a statistician sees connections between variables thanks mainly to a scatter plot matrix; whenever a reader realizes how horrible unemployment is in Spain today; or when a magazine is able to visually display the increasing concentration of college graduates in certain areas, like The Atlantic did in these maps (I wrote about them in this other post):

And do you want famous examples of success? You may argue that Hans Rosling and Al Gore don't count, as their power of persuasion depends on their expertise as showmen, and not so much on the graphs they use, but what about Michael E. Mann's famous hockey stick graph, which I labeled as 'dangerous' here? No matter what you think about that graph, it is undeniable that its success at igniting debate has been huge. And don't you think we may be onto something when even the White House's website has an infographics section?

On a side note, I have finished writing my second long article for Peachpit (read the first one), which will be published in the next few weeks. It's about John Snow and his cholera map, which Andy mentions in his post, but I took a quite unusual approach. Anyway, before I sat in front of the keyboard, I revisited Tom Koch's magnificent Cartographies of Disease and Disease Maps. There are plenty of success stories in them. Check them out.