When I think of data visualization (or data viz as many refer to it now), two examples come to mind that got me interested in the idea of infographics or data visualizations representing data being turned into information.
My first Keanu Reaves “whoa” moment with data viz
Back when I was in Junior High, around the time I was programming a VIC-20 at home (oh, yeah, that’s William Shatner hawking the VIC-20 in this ad), I am sure that William Shatner would be proud to know that I still have mine.
and around the time that the movie TRON was a relative success with it being recognized as the first major film to make use of computer graphics.
In the library, I happened to come across a magazine with a story of how companies were looking at using virtual reality for stock research. It described users being able to put on some goggles and then all of the companies in the stock market would appear as floating, spinning orbs.
By flying around the landscape virtually, people could ignore the red pulsating orbs as they represented companies with negative growth rates, and focus on the orbs floating the highest representing companies with higher than peer growth rates, and then once they had chosen a subset to focus on, they could call out additional criteria they were looking for (perhaps Companies with no debt, or with high dividends, etc) and the virtual display of these companies would change to show these attributes using color, speed, location, and rotation. It just made sense that using data visualization, it could become much easier to research thousands of items rather than searching thru reams of paper. I have since looked for that original article but it unfortunately remains hidden to Google/Bing but I still remember it well and part of me was always hoping I would someday be called upon to create a virtual reality program to do that very thing.
My second Keanu Reaves “whoa” moment with data viz
After purchasing one of the HP Touchpads that were part of the HP Touchpad clearance fire sale, I came across the TED application which packages up the talks from the TED conferences as videos. I first blogged about this and the TED Conference here. Anyway, of all of the videos I was watching to catch up on the TED phenomenon, it was Hans Rosling’s video that blew me away. His use of changing infographics and data plotted along a timeline that could be played like a movie blew me away and got me thinking about its possibilities – check it out and see if you don’t agree that these presentations aren’t awesome and interesting. All of a sudden it was easy to see how such a method could much more effectively display trends than any static picture. And not only was it filled with insights but visually engaging.
So those 2 moments are really what have gotten me so interested in BI and data visualization and learning much more about it. More recently it was Stephen Few’s book “Now you see it” that reminded me of one of the most famous “old school” powerful uses of data viz.
In his book in Chapter 13 – Promising Trends in Information Visualization, he recalls the story of Dr Snow in 1854 London during the midst of a severe cholera outbreak. Dr. Snow actually plotted the deaths in the Soho district of London and was able to show on a map how they all seem centered around a specific pump on Broad Street. Even the outliers on the map could be traced to people who had drank from that specific well, some of them who lived a distance away but ironically preferred the taste of water from that well. His map, a section showed below with the concentrations of death (I have highlighted in yellow) can certainly be seen centered around the Broad Street Pump which I have circled in red. When viewed in this manner, it became strong evidence to others and finally the pump handle from this pump was removed to stop people from accessing the water and after further research, the well was indeed found to have been infected from a nearby leaking cess pool.
According to the story, there was one more significant anomaly – none of the monks in the adjacent monastery contracted cholera. Investigation showed that this was not an anomaly, but further evidence, for they drank only beer, which they brewed themselves. [Brad – Smart monks!]
Next time, I’ll probably talk about Stephen Few’s book and other resources I have found useful.
But I have to mention one more thing that has me excited about working with data. It’s no secret that I am a huge PowerPivot fan as it truly is the first tool to bring BI to the masses. And I was thrilled when I saw for the first time that Microsoft’s Power View (formerly known as Project Crescent) would allow one to create bubble charts moving in time just as Hans Rosling demonstrated in his TED talk – and then I was demoralized when I found Power View required Sharepoint servers as that is not a practicality for our client base.
But this last week, I found Dan English’s post describing how with Office 2013, PowerView will be able to be used directly from Excel 2013, no Sharepoint required – and that’s got me happy because I think there will be some very powerful visualizations available to us when that happens. And that will become another powerful tool in the big game to turn data into real, actionable information.