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Data Visualization vs. Infographics

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

If Twitter is anything to go by it appears that more and more frequently all data visualization is being lumped in with what’s been coined as "Infographics" or "data art". While certainly there are some good examples of data art (which will be explored further in a future article) there is a negative stigma attached to infographics and is beginning to permeate data visualization as a whole. This problem needs to be addressed.

I point to a recent article by Stephen Few entitled Data Art vs. Data Visualization: Why Does a Distinction Matter?. Few describes the goal of data visualization as “seeing data in a way that leads to understanding.” Furthermore, he states that “Whatever else data visualization does, it must inform”. In his article, Few explains how confusion between data art and data visualization can be confusing and potentially harmful to businesses:

  1. Data art creates a misunderstanding that data cannot be visualized and understood without training in graphic arts. As such, it works against the democratization of data. In reality, anyone of reasonable intelligence and a little training can present and understand data effectively. It’s vital that data visualization spreads more broadly across the population, because it can play a role in making a better world.
  2. Data art employs ineffective methods of visualizing data for the purposes of aesthetics. It encourages people to present data in ways that are difficult to perceive and understand simply because they are flashier or more entertaining, which is usually irrelevant to the task at hand.

One comment on Stephen Few’s blog entry sums up this notion particularly well. Sally Bigwood writes “Data art for business purposes is like providing assembly instructions for a new PC in haiku. It may be beautiful but it is a barrier to communication.”

Unfortunately, the above graph is a fairly accurate representation of how many business users think about data visualization. Data Art tends to reinforce this stereotype, belittling the importance of having data presented in a visual form as a way to better inform ones audience. Good data visualization, as Few stated, leads to understanding. Take the New York Stop and Frisk Map (presented below). Would you rather see this data in its raw form? Is this something Excel is capable of creating? No, and no. This is real data visualization.

Our hope is that industry leaders, from people like Stephen Few or Edward Tufte to Data Visualization providers like Qlikview, Dundas, and Tableau, will continue to educate the business world and shed this negative stigma forever.

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