Thursday, December 8, 2005

Data Visualization Lessons from Gapminder

Having been around business analytics for more than a decade, I have seen many attempts at innovative data visualizations: techniques for graphically representing data that go beyond the bar, pie, and other charting classics. By now, the typical business analyst was supposed to be flying through 3D datascapes. But alas, the virtual jetpacks have not yet taken off.

Where I have seen progress is in a simpler form of data visualization that extends the charting classics with animation. By making chart elements active, a story can be told as the elements change—for example, by showing how a stacked chart’s layers build up.

A recent posting on TEDblog by June Cohen pointed me to a good example: Gapminder provides visualizations of United Nations data about various countries’ income and health levels. The graphic below is from the first presentation, which you can view at the Gapminder home page. Click its title (“1 Income”) in the green box in the middle of the page; when it appears, click the big arrow button at the bottom right to go forward through the screens.

Critics might dismiss these types of animations as eye candy, somehow below serious analytics. However, by that standard, charting itself could be called eye candy, since the underlying numbers are all you need—an argument that would find few takers.

What most critics actually fear is not animation itself but pointless animation such as PowerPoint transitions gone amok. Yet when it is done well, animation can do for charting what charting does for numbers: provide a more approachable and impactful view. That sounds a lot like the promise of better data visualization. So even if Gapminder-style animations seem like baby steps compared to 3D datascapes, the data-viz field may need to accept and build on baby steps to get to the long-promised leaps and bounds.

Anyway, decide for yourself. You already know that income and health are distributed unevenly throughout the world. See if Gapminder’s presentation brings the point home in a stronger way than you’ve seen before.

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