A metaphor I’ve seen used to describe visualization a few times now is a camera: like a camera, visualization can be used to do good and bad things; like a camera, it requires skill to use well; like a camera, it allows you to discover new ways of seeing the world. It’s actually quite a useful metaphor, and one that merits some exploration.
Point-And-Shoot Cameras for the Masses
Ola Rosling did a very clever thing when he was on a panel on The Impact of Social Information Visualization that I organized at Vis 2007: he pulled out a point-and-shoot camera and snapped a picture. He did that in response to people in the audience worrying about people’s use of Many Eyes (and other “visualization for the masses” kinds of tools). His point was that even ubiquitous and cheap cameras have not destroyed photography. People still understand what separates a good picture from a bad one, even if there are clearly more and different ideas about what makes good pictures these days than there used to be.
Popular tools are often limited and simple. Each individual chart type on Many Eyes can only do one thing. Compared to more full-featured programs that let you change almost anything about the visualization, switch between visualization types, etc., that is clearly less flexible and more limiting. But for many people, that is exactly the level they need. Not everybody needs a DSLR with all its controls and complexity. A point-and-shoot that you can use to literally just point it at something, push the button, and get a reasonable result, is much more useful.
The best camera is not the most expensive one, or the fanciest one with the most controls; it’s the one you have with you. The best visualization tool is the one that can read your data and that you know how to use. It may not do everything that’s possible, or even everything you would want it to, but it will give you a starting point.
The Skilled Photographer
There is a lot of talk in photography circles about gear: cameras, lenses, tripods, flashes, etc. Even people who spend enormous amounts of money on cameras and “glass” (lenses), however, will insist that the quality of the gear is only a minor factor: what makes a great photo is still the photographer.
Skill is also the key with visualization tools. All the talk about how dreadful Excel and its defaults are does not keep people from creating excellent charts using that program. The opposite is also true: let somebody play with all the options in Tableau, and you might still end up with a horrible visualization.
In photography, there is a saying that learning to take good pictures is not about being able to use the camera’s controls, understand what the aperture does, etc., but rather learning to see. By observing your results and photos you like, you learn from your mistakes and you improve your skills. This is not a quick process, it takes years and many thousands of pictures to be any good.
It’s easy to see what this means in visualization: it’s not finding the perfect tool, it’s looking at lots of visualizations and finding out what is good and bad about them; it’s realizing that something was done in Excel that looks like it would not even be possible, and figuring out how to do it; it’s understanding that the point of visualization is insight, not just pretty pictures.
One thing that happens when you’re spending time taking pictures is that you become more aware of your surroundings. You’re constantly scanning your environment for patterns and interesting angles, and you’re paying a lot more attention to the quality of the light and the way things and people cast shadows.
Visualization does the same thing. Talk to somebody about patterns in data, and they might not have an idea what you are talking about. But show them, and they will see them. And once you’ve done that a few times, you will be much more receptive to these things as well.
But beyond that, your thinking changes. Being able to see your data and to directly interact with it gives you a much more immediate understanding. You also realize that very simple techniques can give you tremendous power to learn something about your data very quickly.
But just like with cameras, we need to show people where the value is. It’s not the cute picture frames or the kitschy star filter, it’s opening your eyes and seeing what you can do with the tools you have on hand.