Data Visualization: A Primer and Practical Application

Over the last several months I’ve been fascinated by the talk around Data Visualization. It’s one of those things that when you see it done properly, its brilliance immediately strikes you. Good Data Viz can illuminate and educate, inspire and entertain. I also understand that this is an area when I am a student and am happy to turn it over to the pros. So, with this post I want to share some of the smartest stuff I’ve seen, as well as provide you with some original commentary from Patricia McDonald, Planning Director at BBH Labs. I’ll also add some thoughts of my own on where I think DV can best touch the average person.

Here’s a quick run down of some must read material on Data Visualization:

Manuel Lima is a leading thinker in the area of Data Viz, and recently laid out his Information Visualization Manifesto. Make sure you read the comments as well.

Now, take a look at this video of a talk on the subject Manuel gave:

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 Those super-smart cats at Made by Many are all over this of course, so check out what they have to say as well.

I’ll wrap up this intro with a post by Jim Carroll, Chairman, of BBH London that was featured on the BBH Labs site, which also has a great follow-up on Lima’s Manifesto.

This is all pretty heady stuff, so I’ve turned to Michael Surtees of DesignNotes to put things in a bit of perspective. He also offers some handy resources on the subject.

And here’s where I found myself asking, “How can Data Visualization be most relevant to me?” Patricia McDonald was kind enough to offer the following:

Data Visualisation and utility  

Data visualisation at its most useful does two things: it makes complex data immediate and potentially dull information compelling. Which means it can enhance the user experience any and every time the user is presented with a complex wall of numbers to interpret. Numbers which could help and empower us, but which we struggle to engage with. So data viz could help us pretty much every time we receive a bank statement or utility bill, look at a train timetable or try to make sense of nutritional information. (Or maybe it’s just me…)  

The area where I think data viz could most quickly and easily make a difference is in the area of bills and statements. It seems like a dull topic, I know, but imagine the impact of suddenly giving millions of people genuine and immediate insight into their spending habits, cell phone behaviours or energy consumption. It’s data people are generally either bored or intimidated by but the impact of genuinely understanding and seeing patterns in it could be hugely empowering. Knowledge, as they say, is power.  

Imagine being able to visualise your bank statement broken down by type of spend, by time or by location. Imagine literally being able to see where and when your money is going. goes some way towards visualising categories of spend but there are many other dimensions we could consider.  

Imagine if data viz were applied to our electricity, water or gas bills so we could see where and when we use most power and resources. Google PowerMeter is a fantastic initiative that taps into smart meters and energy management devices to present a detailed breakdown of an individual household’s energy consumption (down to the appliance level) but imagine the impact if we could visualise that information, not simply chart it and if every utility company were on board with making our bills simple, beautiful and highly useful. It’s also possible to take the visualisation approach into the material world; products like the Wattson device or the Ambient Energy Orb offer the ultimate in complex data made simple and beautiful; changing colour as your energy consumption waxes and wanes.  

Studies show that access to this kind of information can reduce energy consumption by between 5 and 15% which saves the consumer money and benefits the environment. It’s also a lesson in just how much genuine understanding of our personal data has the power to change our behaviour; imagine a similar impact on spending versus saving behaviours and the benefit to individuals everywhere. A beautiful device that changes colour as your bank account enters the red may perhaps be a little too much information for public display but could have serious impact in private.


Well, of course when you ask someone like Patricia to think about DV, she wields her knowledge for good, talking about consumer empowerment and changing behaviour for the good of the environment. 

Me on the other hand, my thoughts turn to sports.  In the late-70s Bill James began revolutionizing baseball with his statistical analyses. Since then baseball nerds and computer geeks have been crunching numbers and creating new ways to measure player value. That’s great, and it’s no coincidence that the Red Sox starting winning the World Series once they put James on the payroll. But what about the casual fan? For them, it’s staring at a box score in the newspaper, or even online, that bears a striking resemblance to the same one our grandfathers looked at.

Surely Data Viz could step in here to make all the numbers more meaningful, putting them into a greater context.  Perhaps this would allow us to see not just who is leading the league in batting, but by what percentage vis a vis the rest of the league. What percentage of a slugger’s at bats are home runs, and what percentage are strike outs?  Pitch velocity, wins against certain teams, extra bases… there are myriad options here.

With newspapers struggling to maintain readership, an innovative development like this could be a real differentiator.  I’d love your thoughts on where else Data Visualization could have a role in everyday lives.