by Matthew Davis

Wow. This is going to be a fun blog post to write. Not only is the title grandiose but it also rhymes. Stick with me and hopefully you’ll not only learn a thing or two but maybe even have a laugh by the time I’m finished. Let’s begin.

In short, Data Visualization (DV) is defined as the study of the visual representation of data, meaning “information that has been abstracted in some schematic form, including attributes or variables for the units of information.” OK that wasn’t short at all, but it is the first sentence you’ll read if you take a look at the wiki article on the subject. And of course, we all know that if it’s on Wikipedia then it must be true. Right? Well of course not but that’s a subject for another post.

OK, sorry for the tangent, but I did state in the title that this would be a meditation. I am therefore entitled dear reader, to let my mind flow where it will, eventually zeroing in on something or other for our mutual benefit and delight…

Aha & Eureka!
My meditation has just been fruitful! The synapses have fired and what I have to share with you can be summed up in three simple words: DATA IS HUMAN! Yes, information or data or whatever you wish to call it is in fact an entirely human construct. The word data is the plural of datum, of the Latin dare, “to give”, hence “something given”. Sounds human to me. We are further led to believe that the core purpose of visualizing data is to impart oneself or others with greater understanding. Also a very human effort. As such, DV seems to be most useful when it can distill a complex idea into a simple, easy to understand bit of visual information. Will a pie chart save the world? No. Can a hand-drawn flow chart like Chris Fahey’s example below on the basic differences of Whisky/Whiskey distillation translate a fairly complex idea into a rather simple one? Yes.

Chris Fahey's Whisky/Whiskey flowchart

A more interesting question to ask however, is will emerging, Information Age social data better help humanity understand itself? I think so. Up until recent history data has traditionally been collected, shared, and controlled solely by humans. The digital era has brought upon a fundamental shift where data is now largely being aggregated by machines. This does not mean that data is no longer human, it just means that instead of being collected and controlled by a few, data is now being collaborated upon by the masses, and in profoundly different ways than the past. We are no longer the sole subjects or consumers of information but active participants. Your Facebook stats, your Flickr pictures, your Foursquare check-ins and those of others on the opposite side of the globe are all contributions to ever-growing data sets of highly accessible human information.

In what new and innovative ways will we make use of this information? Ways that might affect social change and the betterment of humanity? DV-dedicated websites like IBM’s recently launched ManyEyes, which allows users to upload data and produce shareable visualizations are breaking new ground. Swedish Professor Hans Rosling, who recently presented at TED, has founded a website called Gapminder with the sole intention of using DV to aid in creating “a fact-based world view”. For a mind-boggling display of some of his ideas at work take a look at this video “200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 minutes”.

For sure, exciting things are happening in this field; studies on energy usage and efficiency, global food supply, economic inequality. I am betting we’ll continue to see pretty incredible uses of DV in the next few years, let alone the next 100. We might even see a revolution or two because of it! Oh, but as for that laugh I promised…

PS - As one of several bearded employees who work at Spring Studio I am happy to report that I currently maintain a 100% trustworthy beard.