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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.

[Edit: video no longer available]

Posted by Robert Kosara on May 1, 2013.