Seeing is Understanding

2014-11-09 19.46.06 What is 9? To some it is a large number, to others insignificant. In some circumstances, it means a great deal. In others, it may be virtually irrelevant.

What do I mean? Consider the following, quite different uses of the number:

  • 9 grains of sand
  • 9 miles
  • 9 lives (relevant primarily for cats, of course)
  • 9 on the Richter scale

Once I provide a little context, then you begin to understand the true meaning of the number.

In our numbers-obsessed world, it is easy to forget that a number is an abstract idea. It rarely is as exact as we would like to believe. Further this abstract nature means that what I understand when I see a particular number may not be exactly what you understand. Our understanding of numbers can be shaped by our own context and experience. For example, a healthy profit for one company may be a rounding error for another. Because of this, we need to go the extra mile to ensure that the numbers we use and the way we present them convey the intended meaning.

This is where data visualization steps in.

I was very fortunate to be in London last November. There I experienced first-hand the power of data visualization done right.  It was on November 9, 2014. I emerged from the Tower Hill tube station into the dark Sunday evening to find hundreds of people silently looking at the floodlit Tower of London. Or, more precisely, looking at the moat around the Tower.  In that moat were 888,246 bright red poppies.  The flow of poppies began at a Tower window, spilled down the outer wall and then filled the moat entirely.

At one level, it was really quite simple: the people were looking at a public art installation conceived by Paul Cummins and Tim Piper entitled Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red. The artists created it by planting in the moat one red ceramic poppy for every British or colonial life lost during the First World War. It was an incredible way to mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Great War.

The effect of so many poppies was to create a vibrant river of red (or of blood?) in the moat.  When I saw the magnitude of this river, I experienced almost physically the impact of that much blood and that many lives lost. The number 888,246 was now much less abstract for me. And the experience of that loss of abstraction was unforgettable.

This is the power of effective data visualization. Its impact can be profound.

With the recent hype regarding Big Data, it is easy to forget that the point of collecting and analyzing large quantities of data is to give birth to insight and, ultimately, impact. Even the analysis and presentation of smaller sets of data should be done with the goal of provoking insight and impact.

Whether you are making a report, designing a financial dashboard or creating a public art installation, the way you present your numbers can be either obfuscating or enlightening. It can result in confusion or in greater clarity. Data visualization done right can help you get your core message across in a way that simply typing a number on a page cannot.

Seeing is understanding. Do not underestimate the value and sheer power of data visualization. Thankfully, the creators of the poppies at the Tower of London did not and I, for one, am truly grateful.

[Photo Credit: V. Mary Abraham]

This post also appeared on LinkedIn.com.

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