The New Treasure Maps
If a picture’s worth a thousand words, what’s the value of an image representing a terabyte of data?
Much of the vast sea of data flowing around the world every day is left unexplored because the existing tools and charts can’t help us effectively navigate it. Data visualization, interactive infographics, and related visual representation techniques can play a key part in helping people find their way through the wide expanses of data now opening up. There’s a long history of depicting complex information in graphical forms, but the gusher of data now flowing from corporations, governments and scientific research requires more powerful and sophisticated visualization tools to manage it.
Just as a compass needle can give us direction in physical space, a chart line can direct our way through data. As effective as these simple lines may be, they can only take us so far. For many purposes, advanced data visualization methods may never replace Excel, but in our data-saturated world, they might well be the best tools for the job. UX designers can play a key role in creating these new tools and charts. In these treasure maps of data, perhaps UX marks the spot.
Coming to Terms
There are many definitions for the term “data visualization” and related phrases such as “interactive infographics.” The nuances are subject to debate and philosophical inquiry, but here’s a concise version crafted by pioneers in the field:
The use of computer-generated, interactive, visual representations of data to amplify cognition.
- Card, Mackinlay, and Shneiderman, 1999.
From heat maps that graphically represent dynamic patterns of activity such as crime in a specific region or actively traded areas of the stock market, to hypertrees that look at a complex network system with a fisheye lens, there are many different kinds of data visualizations.
In this fluid and rapidly changing area, technology is blurring the distinctions for some of the basic terms. What may once have been considered raw “data” may now be so quickly aggregated and organized that it can been seen as “information” in its own right.
According to Michal Migurski, Partner and Director of Technology for Stamen Design in San Francisco, there are some relatively informal distinguishing characteristics between emerging data visualization and more traditional methods of representing data. These new visualization forms are expected to handle massive volumes of data in more dynamic ways—users can see changes in real-time, and can interact with the data in a more immediate way. Data visualization will probably also incorporate more movement and animation that helps people understand, at a more visceral level, changes in the patterns of information.
Migurski says people want to “find the narrative in the constantly shifting and changing flows of data.” He thinks one of the powerful implications of data visualization tools is the ability to capture a lot of information in real time and then be able to rewind, to essentially turn back the clock, from critical events, to find causes and triggers.
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Credit: Hunter Whitney, UX Magazine