Embrace the power of data visualization

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Embrace the power of data visualization

Businesses need to incorporate a graphical representation of their data into their everyday practice

Who hasn’t heard the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words”? And honestly, who disagrees with it? If you recall a good book you’ve read recently, do you remember the exact sentences or do you, as I do, see a visual replay in your mind? People think using pictures, not in words or numbers.

Nadieh Bremer - 14 januari 2014

Humans versus tables

So why, I wonder, in my experience as an advanced analytics consultant at Deloitte, do I see so many reports at clients that consist primarily out of Excel tables? In our age of big data only becoming bigger, decision makers do not have the time to slowly construct the insights that are hidden within a table of numbers. We are not computers who are made to deal with numbers, but visual beings. Studies show that we can only store about 7 bits of information (± 2)[1], say numbers, in our short-term memory, whereas images go directly into long-term memory. In short, we are much better and faster at interpreting images, while words and numbers take more time to process.


Finding insights fast - a test

Let me demonstrate our 'visualness' with a small and simple example. From the table below, can you tell which company had the highest profit and in what year, within 3 seconds?

data visualization

If you did manage it, you were either lucky or should consider asking for a pay raise because that's an amazing skill you have. For most of us that needed more time, the problem is that, first of all, you have no visual cue to guide your eyes where to look first, but also, you will have to remember numbers and compare them in your mind to say which is the highest and systematically work your way through the table.

Even more challenging questions a decision maker would need to be able to answer fast are: which company is starting to lose profit the most and how severe is the problem? Are there companies that show a similar trend in their profits? How long would these questions take you to answer using the table?

So, how about if I showed the numbers graphically?

data visualization 2

Besides finding the highest profit at a glance, it is also obvious who is performing worst overall and although Vianct and Sublimim where following each other closely before 2009 Vianct leaped upwards while Sublimim had two rough years. Moreover, if this was important to you, you would probably be able to remember how this chart looked tomorrow.


A good data visualization makes a real difference in the decision making process

The point of a data visualization is to make large amounts of data understandable and easy to comprehend. A good data visualization will allow its users to view both simple and complex datasets at a glance and see abnormalities, dependencies and trends that would not have been apparent in tables. Overlooking important pieces of data could have severe consequences for a business, but a visualization of the data uses the strengths of our evolutionarily trained pattern detection machine, the brain, to quickly hone into those data points that need the most attention.


Big Data needs to be visualized to understand the whole picture

Furthermore, in our age of big data becoming bigger and the analytical algorithms more complex we will have to turn to (advanced) visualizations of the data more and more to be able to quickly comprehend the whole picture.

Let me conclude this piece by showing you four beautiful examples of where advanced visualizations of (big) data let you see the bigger picture and conveying the main point through a rephrase of the expression in the introduction: "a data visualization is worth a thousand numbers". 

1. Real-time map of the winds in America during Hurricane Sandy

2. Using 10.000 geotagged tweets to find the main routes through Paris

3. Visualization of the Millennium Simulation of our Universe based on 1010 particles

4. The map of the internet using data on website size and activity - The big blue circle in the middle is Google

[1] George A. Miller (1956) - The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information 

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