Friday, June 24, 2011

gorgeous art made from DATA

You know that when even your recently-graduated-from-college brother is talking about a TED talk on data visualization that it's going to be good. It's taken me an embarrassingly long time to watch this. But I'm glad that I finally did.

Aaron Koblin's flight patterns visual is breathtaking to watch by itself; hearing his description of the project and what jumps out to him in the resulting visual is intriguing. His other projects are equally engaging. I believe also that this is good demonstration of the value of narration on motion graphics - the context that would otherwise be missing is often what makes the visual truly compelling. The burst in Amsterdam text traffic wouldn't mean as much if you didn't know it was new years. Also, who knew collecting drawn sheep could be so interesting? Guess you'll have to watch (if you haven't already) to find out what I'm talking about.

Nat, if you're reading this - you'll enjoy Le Petit Prince reference.
JR and Jill, if you're reading - you'll be interested in the Johnny Cash Project


Monday, June 20, 2011

OECD better life initative

I have to be honest: at first, I was totally turned off by the flower visual representation within the OECD's Better Life Initiative. An email with the link to this site has been sitting in my inbox for weeks as I tried to muster the energy to write about flowers (I am not a flowery person). Today, I decided to try to move past that and use the tool to actually explore the data.

I'm glad that I did. It's kind of amazing. I highly recommend playing with it directly (here). But in case you aren't convinced, let's take a quick tour of this interactive visual.

Here's what you'll see on the main page (and what initially turned me off through the cuteness of flowers for data visualization):

Each flower represents one of the 34 member countries in the OECD. Each petal represents one of the 11 aspects of life (e.g. housing, education, work life balance) that make up the OECD's index (details on how they chose these, data sources, etc. are in the FAQ). You are given complete control over how the various aspects combine to the summary index - to begin with, all are weighted equally, but the user can dial up or dial down how much each counts towards the overall index. The size of the petal indicates how the given country rates on the given life aspect. The height of the flower represents the aggregate index for the given country (based on the the user-input weightings) relative to the other countries.

One thing that bothered me initially was that the flowers seemed randomly ordered and I couldn't tell what the height represented (or even whether it was meaningful). This confusion goes away as soon as you start setting your own preferences and dialing up/down the different aspects of life on the right. For example, if I dial down the emphasis of income and select display countries by rank (bottom right; default is alphabetical, which is messy visually), I get the following:

The blue petals (income, which is what I changed) are highlighted. This is a nice use of preattentive attributes to make one aspect stand out and push all else to the background. I can quickly see the relative index by country (height of flower) visually.

As you hover your mouse over the different countries, another visual comes up that shows the relative scores for the given country across the various aspects. These horizontal bars make it much easier for our eyes to see the relative magnitudes than do the petals of the flower. But the petals do compact in a way that makes them work for the supergraphic (which is showing a LOT of information) and I like that the details are there on demand. There is good consistency of color throughout the site, with each aspect shown in the same color in each of the various visuals. The color palette of slightly muted shades is a good choice (bright colors would quickly transport us to the world of Rainbow Bright, which can be distracting).

Clicking on a specific country will bring you to a page on that country and some nice visuals showing how it ranks on each attribute compared to other countries (through another nice use of preattentive attributes to highlight the given country). Clicking on a specific aspect in the Topics menu will take you to a page on that aspect, including a nice visual of countries in ascending order by the given aspect.

In sum, this is a well organized site with some nice visuals to explore. It packs in a lot of data. I love everything except the flowers!

By the way, the OECD is a great source of data if you're ever looking for a dataset to analyze or visualize. Google has a great tool, Google Public Data Explorer, that brings together public data from various sources (including the OECD) and provides tools to visualize it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

learning from bad graphics

They say when it comes to understanding how to be a good people manager, you can learn perhaps as much from a bad boss (what not to do) as you can from a great manager (what to emulate). I have to think the same is probably true when it comes to honing one's data visualization skills.

A good visual display invites you in. It's straightforward to read and understand. It reveals something interesting. A bad visuals turn you off. It may look too complicated or messy. It's hard to figure out what's going on. It may also misrepresent the data.

A colleague forwarded an article from TechCrunch recently, Look At Who's Winning The Talent Wars in Tech, 6/7/11. (Perhaps the lack of concision in the title serves as an early warning of bad things to come.) The article discusses the flow of talent between tech companies. It includes the following visual:

To put it bluntly: I am not a fan of this visual. Beyond looking clunky, it's wasting precious space that could be visually informing but is not. How could we make better use of the space this graphic occupies to tell a visual story?

I think the biggest opportunity lost here is having a visual sense of the relative magnitudes of talent flow. Currently, all the arrows convey is directionality; we actually have to read the numbers to get a sense of relative magnitudes, which would probably be much more straightforward in a table than a visual (at least then all of the text would be uniformly horizontal so we could read it!). Scaling the arrows to reflect the relative magnitude of talent flow would solve this.

It would also be great if the size of the circles could represent something meaningful to add context and not just take up space (e.g. number of employees in the given organization). 

If the arrows and circles were scaled, it would give the audience a quick visual sense of what's going on, helping to focus attention to interesting pieces and make information easier to pull out of the visual. A program like Circos could work well for this (view related blog post).

I actually had been thinking of recreating the visual using Circos, but a quick calculation (from info I have exposure to in my day job) made me super suspect of the figures provided, so I decided not to spend my time graphing bad data. The information used in the TechCrunch visual was mined from a social networking job seeker website, so the underlying dataset is not ideal for getting to the information they are after. As one of my colleagues pointed out: this is like using Facebook data to figure out how many people delete MySpace profiles to join Facebook! 

Ah, what we can learn from things done poorly...