Advocating vs. benefiting
Having immersed myself in the world of data visualisation through research and practice over the past 3 to 4 years, it’s emergence and continued growth is very clear for me to witness. My personal discovery of new blogs, papers, books, technology and, above all, energy around the subject is testimony to this.
On my ‘about’ page I reference a quote from The Guardian’s Charles Arthur back in September 2007:
We’re always being told that our computers are more powerful than ever before. Now, perhaps, we can start to use them to make better sense of the world about us. Visualisation doesn’t have to mean fancy eye candy; it can just be simple, elegant and informative. Look out for it.
I use this quote because I think it nicely encapsulates the purpose of visualisation. However, 30 months on I sense the field hasn’t progressed sufficiently to successfully bridge the still significant disconnect between the advocates and the potential beneficiaries of data visualisation.
In part this is due to the ongoing absence of clearer boundaries and definition of what data visualisation is and (perhaps more importantly) what it isn’t. Of course, anchoring and boxing-in a subject is undesirable but there is nevertheless a need to continually evolve a common terms of reference. This is a matter passionately discussed by people like Stephen Few (most recently here) and especially Robert Kosara who has written about this issue in his most recent item:
Visualization is not a very clearly defined field. There are many variations, ways of doing it, and ideas around it. That is valuable, because it keeps the field moving and brings in fresh ideas. But it also brings with it people who like using visualization’s tools and talk about visualization, but what they are doing is something else. We need to start calling these things what they are: a cargo cult of visualization (read on…)
A second prevalent factor is the mutual back-slapping that occasionally takes place between and within numerous blogs and practitioners in this field. This results in a certain amount of complacency that just because we all get excited about the potential of this subject and its applications, everyone else should too.
In these times of financial challenges across almost all economies, the likelihood is that data visualisation type solutions, unfortunately, will be perceived as ‘luxury spend’ activities by many organisations needing to cut expenditure (particularly consultancy) and to simply focus on their core business. Whilst it fine for all of us inside the business to recognise that it deserves a higher standing and can be deployed to support economic recovery, that is ultimately insufficient. It is vital we all strive towards a better articulation of what data visualisation is to help provide due justification and explanation of the potential tangible improvements for all.
I’m therefore going to be particularly looking at posting items that a) help pursue this idea of a stronger definition and b) help to articulate the tangible need for data visualisation in organisations. If anybody has any suitable content to contribute towards this please feel free to stick then in the comments.