Visualization isn’t just about fancy charts

Continuing from my last post on how data isn’t everything, visualization isn’t just about finding cool ways to show off data. “Visualization”, which seems to be a hot topic at the moment, is more than that. While it might be a buzzword that refers to showcasing data and statistics in a interesting way, I think “visualizing” something goes beyond that and should refer to how visuals, images, graphics, etc. help us understand any topic better and educate or inform people to know and do something with this information.

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A quick scan of Wikipedia shows that there’s a bunch of terms “visualization” can refer to, including: mental image, information graphics, perception, and thinking, highlighting that it’s an evolving field. Taking this idea further, there’s a difference in ‘information’ design vs. ‘graphic’ design. Whatever the tools or channels, the purpose of designing information is about making information accessible to the people who will need it and use it to make important decisions, as mentioned in Joel Katz’s book Designing Information. Graphic design, on the other hand, is more about making things look “pretty” or for aesthetic beauty. Both are naturally link yet have different purposes.

Visualization can then be like the signage in the photo above, the illustration below educating readers on the process of the Olympics Slopestyle, creating a chart out of Legos to show the impact of licensing, or allowing users of Google Ngram to find the commonality of keywords in publications over a given time period.

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Data isn’t everything – let’s balance it with common sense

I love visualizations, data, and information and finding creative ways to turn it into something interesting and useful. It’s a great way to take advantage of the analytical and creative sides of the brain. At the same time, I’m quite aware that even if the world is becoming more visual and addicted to stats and numbers, we have to be even more wary of how that information is being used and interpreted. It’s shouldn’t be about seeing the superficial side of a statistic and using it in the hopes of sensationalizing a topic (i.e. it’s tempting for journalists and others to do this), but being true to what the statistics represent, building a story around it, and respecting how this may influence the audience.

That’s why it’s refreshing to see that in WIRED, a magazine focused on technology and all the numbers coming from it, they published Felix Salmon’s article “Numbed by Numbers: Why Quants don’t know everything“, which helps to put a bit of perspective on the numbers game.

Let's not get bent out of shape over numbers.
Let’s not get bent out of shape over numbers.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a quant is an expert at analyzing and managing quantitative data and its first known use was in 1979. In Salmon’s article, he uses the example of the movie Moneyball which documented how statistics were used in baseball to help the underfunded Oakland A’s to a division-winning 2002 season. He writes that quants are almost always right since they use algorithms and setup systems that track every aspect of society with 1’s and 0’s. Yet, the more that a field is run by a system, the more the system creates incentives for everyone to change their behavior – and in the end people start to cheat the system – and that the statistics/numbers generated by the system may not actually hold value or be telling the “truth”.

It’s increasingly clear that for smart organizations, living by numbers alone simply won’t work…

There needs to be a bit more of a balance to the numbers that can help make our lives better and the use of good ol’ human insight, decision-making and common sense. Believing in statistics as they stand is one thing, but we also have to use our judgement and experience to bolster our understanding so that this information can improve the society we live in. For example, the National Weather Service employs meteorologists who, understanding the dynamics of weather systems, can improve forecasts by as much as 25% compared with computers alone.

Let’s celebrate the value of disruption by data – but let’s not forget that data isn’t everything.

Read “Numbed by Numbers: Why Quants don’t know everything

The Open Data Revolution

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There’s a bit of a revolution going under most people’s noses and it is probably something most people won’t think about even if we need this revolution whether we realize it or not. And at the same time people contribute to this revolution even if they don’t know about it. It’s a good thing – it makes us understand our world better, helps to build better tools and products that hopefully make our lives easier, and eventually gives us the power to make better decisions and helps governments to serve us better.

Coined in the 90s, the “information superhighway” is all about the flow of information and communication through digital channels. On this highway there’s plenty of lanes to drive on, from normal, fast, to car-pool lanes. Open data or knowledge is the car-pool kind. And this growing interest and need for openly accessible information and data is the revolution.

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The Open Knowledge Foundation has a standard definition on what is Open Data:

Open data is data that can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone – subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and sharealike.

With more and more information, this asset becomes something that we can trade, market, and sell – some like to call this the “information economy“. Just think about how your profile on Google or Facebook can actually help advertisers and companies to better understand your habits. In “Who Wins in the Battle for Power on the Internet?“, the author takes a dark look at the power of cyberspace and the internet and makes a convincing argument as to being a situation of “you’re against us or you’re with us”.

We’re at the beginning of some critical debates about the future of the Internet: the proper role of law enforcement, the character of ubiquitous surveillance, the collection and retention of our entire life’s history, how automatic algorithms should judge us, government control over the Internet, cyberwar rules of engagement, national sovereignty on the Internet, limitations on the power of corporations over our data, the ramifications of information consumerism, and so on.

While most people won’t like this kind of intrusion, the fact that our digital footprint can be measured, monitored and tracked isn’t such a bad thing. Don’t forget, it’s not just about people, but this information also relates to how companies, governments, and organizations do business which can help you or me understand better our choices and decisions that actually have an impact on them. I’d like to think that there’s some positive aspects of embracing the challenges of data and information (overload?) and how we can make use of this to make the world better. Ultimately, it’s people who will push the boundaries of how data can be used for good or evil… and the Open Knowledge Foundation is a community that’s been pushing for this “good” revolution.

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It’s going to be an interesting future as more and more data and information can and will help us make better decisions. In September I attended my first Open Knowledge Conference and found the discussions fascinating, the challenges complex, and the potential inspiring. It was also a great way to connect, meet people with similar interest, and just get excited by all the ideas and creativity.

My focus for the meeting was seeing where the discussion led in terms of understanding our risk to disasters and wrote an article for work about it called: “Open data makes disaster risks visible“. While risk information is definitely growing, there’s plenty of other places that have already matured in how data can be used to understand patterns, inform the way we work and do business, and hopefully provides us with insight into how we can evolve, plan, and make societies and systems better. For example, there was an exhibition by Schema Designs that showcased traffic patterns over the course of a day in Geneva, Zurich and San Francisco and highlighting the frequency and intensity of public transit use throughout the day…

The Book: IIIDaward 2011

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In 2011, the International Institute for Information Design (IIID) was celebrating its 25th anniversary. As part of its celebration and in cooperation with Axis Magazine and the Taiwan Design Center, it launched its inaugural Award for recognizing the best in what information design has to offer. The organization’s aim is to promote and expand design knowledge and research on information design and is recognized as the world leader in information design development. So I was quite honored to have received an email back in 2011 about being selected by the Jury for Didactics category (projects that focus on educational or instructional information design) of the Award.

All the selected nominations were eventually put together in an Award book. Even though it took a year to receive the physical book, I’m glad to see I’m in good company – my project is on page 128. The next Award will be in 2014 and entries can be submitted starting in November.

IIID2011

 

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe… making data-backed decisions

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Counting is one of the basic things we do when we make decisions. Do I need to buy one or two apples?  How many pairs of pants do I want? The ability to make a judgement is backed by both what we know and don’t know. Expand this to grander decisions like how to build cities, improve traffic flows, where to send medicine, etc., then information and data, like linking it to location, clusters, and population density, to support decisions starts to get interesting.

Data can be anything – from the miles you log on your bike to work or the number of times you buy milk a week – and if diligent enough it can be captured by hand, like writing down your routines in a calendar, or using a device, like a GPS or a phone App. And once this data is structured and standardized around some common variables (i.e. location, occurrence, frequency, user), it becomes an important piece of information in how we can make better (or worse) decisions.

For example, Trulia, a website to help visitors find housing in the US, has not only put together where and how much you can find a house or apartment in a particular city in the US, but you can also compare the place with crime rates, school locations, things to do, and even the risk of earthquakes or floods. It’s not meant to scare but to give visitors the information they need to make a decision as to where they want to live.

This concept of using data to support decisions isn’t new. We’ve collected data in various forms, such as market research, surveys, focus groups, etc., for years. The only difference is that with technology and tools for analysis, we can not only get a better representation of a situation, but also capture a lot more data since we’re producing much more using our computer and mobile phones. It’s no surprise that the job of a Data Officer, or in advertising heavyweight Ogilvy’s case a Chief Data Officer, is becoming a valuable asset in business and any work that wants to use data to make better decisions.

In the end, it isn’t just about crunching numbers, but about how we interpret it to help us make decisions. More information and data isn’t the only answer. It’s understanding the data… or as Twitter blogged about recently:

Something else to remember: Who are you talking to? How engaged are they? Do they follow or retweet you? Without context and interpretation, numbers are just numbers.

 

If we’re on the information superhighway, can we slow down?

… or at least learn to enjoy the ride (like this photo of the drive along Lac Leman between Geneva and Lausanne)? In the day and age of having information at our fingertips and spending probably 8 hours a day of a computer, how do we learn to slow down? With most of us on email or some kind of social media platform to bombard us with news, interests, and follow what our friends and family are doing, is it possible we’re just looking for a ‘quick-fix’ of info before we move on to the newest or ‘trending’ topic?

Don’t get me wrong, there are some fascinating ways we can turn ourselves or our interest into a visual and ultimately ‘share-able’ online tidbit. Take for example, the website http://vizualize.me/ – yep, that’s right, you can turn your resume and curriculum vitae, or CV, into a very graphical and somewhat interesting piece of art. There’s plenty of apps and other services online that takes advantage of that small, yet distinct narcissistic side in all of us. But it’s fun, right? And it might actually be useful to make use of all that information that’s around us… The New York Times has been at the frontline of taking information around us and turning it into something beautiful yet useful (checkout this page for a collection of their stuff).

But I’m still torn between the need to being ‘wired’ all the time and scanning online text to stay up-to-date with EVERYTHING, or just reading for the enjoyment and taking in every word. According to renowned usability expert, Jacob Nielsen, people don’t read anything online, they scan… and this article was written in 1997. So imagine after 10+ years of depending more and more on information from the web… has our brains been wired differently to read? Are we superficially understanding many things, but not really being knowledgeable about anything? In the future, will we need courses in learning how to learn?

UPDATE: Picked up the latest edition of Monocle and guess what? It’s about the future of media and how traditional media (i.e. print) might be making a comeback… or at least it’s refreshing to know that there’s people out there interested in well-written and researched stories – and worth spending the time (and $) to enjoy them.

Life’s a whirlwind tour… time to make a change.

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything in this blog. I think it’s time for a change to coincide with the change in what my blog’s going to be about. If you look at the sidebar of my blog, I’ve been writing seriously in this blog since 2006. But most of it’s been about my travels and life living abroad. I guess it’s a bit of a change now since I don’t expect to be moving around too much in the future (i.e. yikes! settling down… I must be getting old).

The fun part will be to start writing about what interests me – like information graphics, how we can turn information and raw data into things that are interesting for people so they can understand the world better, and hopefully make better decisions/choices. So that’s going to be the change… of course, I’ll keep putting up photos from my observations around me, but I just thought I’d take a more interesting and focused approach to blogging (although I’ve heard blogging is dead).

To start off with, check out how journalism and media are changing the way they build a story/news and how all the data we’re generating, whether via the internet or not, is being used by graphic designers and artists to help us understand our world around us. The way we communicate now is a lot different than the photo above of a telephone on the steps of the Vallorbe train station in Switzerland – it was like traveling back in time.

Journalism in the Age of Data – http://datajournalism.stanford.edu/index.html

UN Virtual Library in Timor-Leste

While working for the United Nations Resident Coordinator’s office in Timor-Leste, I was asked to put together a virtual library so that all the UN’s publications from Timor-Leste could be accessed online. At the time there was no systematic organization of the UN’s publications in an easy place to find. The virtual library was built using WordPress and featured tags and categories to organize the publications.

Day 4 (#GISDay) – It's all about the data!

Timor-Leste Census 2010

More and more people keep attending the afternoon seminars… including today’s presentation by the National Statistics Directorate of Timor-Leste. One of the key things in this 10-year old country is to get a better understanding about its population and what are the challenges to its growth. Timor-Leste will be conducting its national census next year in July 2010.

GIS and mapping hand-outs

Interest is growing for the event, but it’s too bad that the event is only for one week. There needs to be more done in terms of getting the government, universities/schools, and the international community more aware of GIS and mapping and how everyone can benefit from it – hopefully all the material we have available will get around and get people interested. It’s all about collecting and analyzing data… poor data = poor analysis = poor planning/development… GIS and maps can help visualize this.

OCHA ROAP Map Atlas

As part of an ongoing project on Natural Hazard Risk for UNOCHA’s regional office in Asia and the Pacific, after analyzing and producing a hazard risk map for each country in the region, the final accumulation was to produce a publication. This was the cover I designed using Wordle. The rest of the publication was also prepared using Adobe InDesign. The publication was not produced as far as I know since there were other priorities for the organization at the time (i.e. responding to Cyclone NARGIS that hit Myanmar in 2008).