Why the Obsession with Tables?

Lots of data are still presented and released as tables. But why, when we know that visual representations are so much easier to read and understand? Eric Newburger from the U.S. Census Bureau has an interesting theory.

In a short talk on visualization at the Census Bureau, he describes how in the 1880s, the Census published maps and charts. Many of those are actually amazingly well done, even by today’s standards. But starting with 1890 census, they were replaced with tables.

This, according to Newburger, was due to an important innovation: the Hollerith Tabulating Machine. The new machines were much faster and could slice and dice the data in a lot of new ways, but their output ended up in tables. Throughout the 20th century, the Census created enormous amount of tables, with only a small fraction of the data shown as maps or charts.

Newburger argues that people don’t bother trying to read tables, whereas visualizations are much more likely to catch their attention and get them interested in the underlying data. We clearly have the means to create any visualization we want today, and there is plenty of data available, so why keep publishing tables? It’s a matter of the attitudes towards data, and these can be hard to change after more than 100 years:

We were producing analysts who knew how to make tables. Really really good tables. But what we’re doing is making tables.

There are three short talks in this recorded webinar, which also go into some detail on the visualization efforts inside the Census, their visualization gallery, etc. It’s an interesting insight into the way the Census Bureau works and how a small group of people is trying to change the way the Census communicates information to the public.

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Robert Kosara

Robert Kosara is Senior Research Scientist at Tableau Software, and formerly Associate Professor of Computer Science. His research focus is the communication of data using visualization. In addition to blogging, Robert also runs and tweets.

3 thoughts on “Why the Obsession with Tables?”

  1. I’ve worked with census data a lot and it really can be frustrating. Even the tables are often poorly formatted for further analysis. It would be great if the bureau (and any providers of data) could just provide decent raw sources.

  2. This is a false dilemma – tables and charts do different things well.

    Charts are better for exploring and understanding data. Tables are better for looking up specific data points that you want to take and use.

    Charts are a comprehension aid, better for cover-to-cover readers wanting to understand a whole. Tables are a look-up aid, better for quick reference.

    Both are valid tasks an information producer would want to support.

    Charts with each point labelled are a great ‘best of both’, but aren’t always practical.

    Tables with columns of sparkline-style charts are another brilliant best-of-both, but not necessarily easy to produce or find space for, especially if it’s something where labelling is needed. If each row is a time series, they’re great. For most other cases, it’s hard work making them actually work well.

    We should definitely encourage people to provide both – but not by denying the real (but different) usefulness of tables.

    (or, better still, we could aim to get people to produce charts and table-substituting clear *reliable* *permanent* short URL web links to downloadable spreadsheet or database tool… although even that is less useful for someone who just needs to look up one specific data point for an article of their own)

    1. I don’t think there’s a false dilemma in the article – I think it’s clear to the author and the rest of us that tables and charts have different purposes and do different things well.

      The question raised seems to be ‘why use a table when a chart would be better?’ as opposed to the message of ‘don’t use tables, use charts’


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