Data Visualization Humor

Hopefully none of the “featured” visualizations belong to you.

There’s enough bad data visualizations out there to mock publically. Here are some sites that do just that.

  • Junk Charts – examples with commentary on how to make improvements. You can also follow @JunkCharts on Twitter.
  • WTF Visualizations – a Tumblr blog of “visualizations that make no sense”. You can also follow @WTFViz on Twitter.

Are there other sites that I should list here?

The Ghost Map

This book is a must-read for all data visualization professionals, not just those in healthcare.

A few months ago, Andrew Fox demonstrated how to use SAP Lumira with geospatial mapping via its ESRI integration (see SAP Community Network article, Integrating SAP Lumira and ESRI mapping to deliver Location Intelligence). For his data set, Andrew used the map created in 1854 by physician John Snow in the midst of a cholera outbreak in London. I was able to learn more about the 1854 cholera outbreak by reading The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson (Penguin, ISBN 978-1594482694), who creates a gripping historical narrative. The Ghost Map itself was created by Dr. John Snow, a physician who was puzzled why some people contracted cholera and others did not.

The map is a brilliant work of information design and epidemiology, no doubt. But it is also an emblem of a certain kind of community— the densely intertwined lives of a metropolitan neighborhood— an emblem that, paradoxically, was made possible by a savage attack on that community.

Steven Johnson in The Ghost Map

Even though John Snow’s map clearly pointed to the Broad Street water pump, his analysis did not immediately gain traction. The prevailing understanding of disease in the mid-nineteenth century was the miasma theory, or literally “bad air”. It was thought that diseases such as cholera were carried by the foul smells. Psychologists refer to the inability to accept new facts that don’t agree with our assumptions as confirmation bias, something that humanity still combats today whether its a high-profile science issue like climate change or just the data in our monthly reports. But Dr. Snow finds an unlikely collaborator in the Reverend Henry Whitehead, who was originally skeptical of Dr, Snow’s research but won over based on his first-hand knowledge of the cholera victims in his parish.

It’s easy to look at 19th century scientific understanding with a critical eye from our perspective in the 21st century and our understanding of the germ theory of disease. I imagine there will be scientific discoveries made over the next 100 years that make our own present understanding of the physical world seem quaint to the citizens of the next century.

This book is a must-read for all data visualization professionals, not just those in healthcare.

UPDATE: SAP published the following 3-minute documentary about John Snow, How Data Turned a Doctor Into a Hero, on October 14, 2015.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I borrowed a copy of this book from a public library and did not receive it free from its publisher. Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics

A handy desktop reference from the Wall Street Journal.

The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics by Dona Wong (ISBN 978-0393072952) is a handy reference for creating visualizations. I noticed a copy at my local library and decided to check it out. Dona Wong is currently working at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York, but- as the title suggests- previously spent nine years working at the Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she earned an MFA at Yale where none other than Edward Tufte was her thesis advisor.

The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics by Dona Wong

The subtitle of the book is “The dos and don’ts of presenting data, facts and figures”. Its five chapters are organized into a series of easy-to-digest infographics illustrating various data visualization concepts. The book is more of a desktop reference and less of a tutorial. Some Ms. Wong’s advice isn’t actionable because the tools that we use won’t support the best practices. But users of SAP Lumira visualization extensions will appreciate the best practices for pictograms. And while the book discusses how to use color, it doesn’t provide RGB codes for the recommended color palettes. But on the whole, there’s a lot of good information presented in a small amount of space.

Stephen Few wasn’t terribly impressed (see related article, What can the Wall Street Journal teach us about information graphics?). Although it seems a bit self serving on his part, I don’t disagree with Mr. Few that some concepts are difficult to describe in a few words. Or that the guide is mostly a reformatted internal style guide for the Wall Street Journal. Data visualization professionals are better off sticking with more robust books by Stephen Few (see related book reviews) and Edward Tufte. But this book is a handy desktop reference that will help the business users that we support avoid common pitfalls and make better visualizations.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I borrowed a copy of this book from a public library and did not receive it free from its publisher. Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

The Visual Organization

Phil Simon’s thoughts on data visualization.

The Visual Organization by Phil SimonThe Visual Organization: Data Visualization, Big Data, and the Quest for Better Decisions (ISBN 978-1118794388) is the latest book from technology writer and speaker Phil Simon. The Visual Organization is Mr. Simon’s sixth book and his work regularly appears publications such as the Huffington Post, Inc., and Wired. The book’s story begins on May 17, 2013, the day that Tableau Software went public on the New York Stock Exchange. Unlike Facebook, which had a disastrous opening day, Tableau’s stock shot up 63 percent, providing a market capitalization of over $2 billion.

In a few years, we may look back at May 17, 2013, as the dawn of a new type of company: the Visual Organization.

Phil Simon, The Visual Organization, page xxiii

Mr. Simon defines a Visual Organization as follows

A Visual Organization is composed of intelligent people who recognize the power of data. As such, it routinely uses contemporary, powerful, and interactive dataviz tools to ask better questions and ultimately make better business decisions.

Phil Simon, The Visual Organization, page 19

Although most organizations keep their big data and data visualization breakthroughs out of sight as a competitive advantage, The Visual Organization offers a look into three different visual organizations:  Netflix, the University of Texas, and startup Wedgies.

Mr. Simon identifies data visualization tools from five different sources: applications from large enterprise software vendors (think SAP), proprietary best-of-breed applications (think Tableau), popular open-source tools (think D3.js and R), design firms, and small start-up vendors. I was hoping for more in-depth coverage of what tools are currently on the market. For example, SAP is described in a table as only having “BusinessObjects BI OnDemand and SAP Lumira Cloud”. But neither offering is discussed in detail, nor do these two products completely illustrate SAP’s current data visualization offerings. And while there is a table describing the strengths and weaknesses of traditional reporting tools, analysis tools, and “contemporary dataviz tools”, the book needs to make a stronger case to the reader (who is no doubt trying to make their own case) why an organization’s existing tools may or may not be sufficient and why new investment is in order. Although the book is part of Wiley’s SAS Business Series (SAS tools are featured in the University of Texas case study), it mentions Tableau frequently enough (it’s used by Netflix) leaving this reader with the impression that Mr. Simon believes that nobody ever got fired for buying Tableau (see related article, Nobody Ever Got Fired for Buying Tableau).

The book concludes with several chapters organized around the theme of “Getting Started: Becoming a Visual Organization”. Mr Simon insists that “the next chapters should not be considered a step-by-step checklist for beginning a Visual Organization,” but I believe many readers are asking exactly that- “how do I get my organization from its current state to becoming a visual organization?” Perhaps Mr. Simon will answer this question in his next book.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Data Visualization for Dummies

A useful and tool-agnostic guide targeted primarily at business users.

Data Visualization for Dummies by Mico Yuk and Stephanie Diamond is a 256-page guide from Wiley on the hot topic of data visualization (Wiley, ISBN 978-1118502891). Co-author Mico Yuk is well-known in SAP circles as the creator of the Everything Xcelsius web site and most recently the BI Dashboard Formula— the latter receiving significant coverage in this book. Mico and her co-author Stephanie Diamond have created a useful and tool-agnostic guide targeted primarily at business users, not technicians, interested in creating effective visualizations with data.

I have not attended a BI Dashboard Formula workshop, so I cannot offer a perspective on the materials presented here versus what is used during the workshop. Because I’m a technician and not a business user, I was immediately attracted to two resources that can be downloaded from the book’s companion web site. The first is a template for the BI Dashboard Formula Storyboard, which helps organize the content obtained from dashboard scoping sessions. The second is a Data Visualization Evaluation Form that will help organizations peer-review existing dashboards using over twenty criteria organized into seven categories. The book explains in detail how to use both of these resources for project-based work.

Inexperienced visualization designers will appreciate the “what not to do” voice-of-experience aspects of the book just as much as the “what to do” aspects. And throughout the book there are lots of references to web sites and other books that will be useful on the data visualization journey. More experienced designers may already have a bookshelf full of titles from other voices like Stephen Few and Edward Tufte. But even they will find help here if their organization struggles with the “human” side of  visualizing data.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Show Me the Numbers by Stephen Few

Great visualization advice, patiently explained.

Show Me the Numbers: Designing Tables and Graphs to Enlighten by Stephen Few, now in its second edition, is filled with 371 pages of analytical goodness (Analytics Press, ISBN 978-0970601971). I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I don’t own the first edition, which was published in 2004. But I didn’t really know who Stephen Few was until I started working with Xcelsius and somebody turned me onto his outstanding dashboards book, Information Dashboard Design, which was also recently revised into a second edition.

While Information Dashboard Design is focused on at-a-glance dashboards and their unique characteristics, Show Me the Numbers is more broadly focused and goes into extreme depth on both table and graph design. Like the dashboards book, Show Me the Numbers begins by laying a foundation with the science on how our brains perceive visual information, then builds its design principles on that foundation. Mr. Few is widely cited (or disparaged) as “the cranky guy that hates pie charts”. But his criticism of pie charts (and other poor visualization practices) is grounded in the science of visual perception, not his personal taste in visualizations.

A 371-page book may sound kind of scary, but it is broken down into fourteen chapters that can be easily digested. Mr. Few’s writing style is clear and easy to understand, although if you’re like me you’ll put the book down at the end of each chapter so you can think. The book is tool agnostic, so even if your primary tool is Microsoft Excel you’ll benefit from reading it.

The book is rather large, but it’s beautifully designed and constructed with lots of clear illustrations. If I traveled as frequently as I used to, I’d probably prefer a Kindle edition for portability. But an electronic edition does not exist. Mr. Few’s reading style lends itself to a comfortable reading chair and a cup of coffee, so I’m quite satisfied with the print edition. I am finding in my day-to-day work that I am slowly internalizing the wisdom of Show Me the Numbers. But it’s still a book that I open while in the middle of a project and one that I’ll take the time to read cover-to-cover again.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I purchased this book with my own funds. It was not a free review copy. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

You can’t expect to make something beautiful the first time

“Your first projects are gonna suck, and that’s okay”

Jerr Thorp
Photo Credit: Ken Tisuthiwongse via http://blprnt.com

Mashable has a fantastic interview with data visualization expert Jer Thorp.

It’s the same thing with almost everything. There are so many people who I hear from who are like, ‘I really want to do this, what are some books, what should I read?’ You just have to do it.

. . .

The two things that I always tell people is that: First you need to just get started with it, and admit that the things that your first projects are gonna suck, and that’s okay. Y’know, you can’t expect to make something beautiful the first time. My first data visualization was terrible.

The second thing I tell my students is to think about something that’s close to you, something that’s personally relevant to you. If it doesn’t resonate with you, you’re not gonna do a good job with it.

You can read the entire interview on the Mashable site. Jer’s remarks reminded me of the words of Jiro Ono in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, currently on Netflix.

Once you decide on your occupation… you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work.

I’m so grateful that my career turned toward business intelligence nearly ten years ago. Even when my career stresses me out, it’s a profession that I’ve fallen in love with. I hope you’ll read the Jer Thorp interview. And watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi, even if you hate sushi.

Links

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links on this web site above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. Also, some of the books I review were received as review copies and I’ve given my best effort to accurately disclose that information as part of the review. I am disclosing this information in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”