Data Visualization & The Historian

I was looking forward to revisiting Edward Tufte this week. In 2000, I scammed a free trip to one of Tufte’s day-long seminars in Crystal City. At the time, I was working for Sallie Mae as one of their web content writers and often, my work required drilling down complicated loan details into digestible webby bits. One of the ways we were hoping to make that easier was by (smartly) using visuals.

While sending a lowly web writer to a seminar discussing the 30,000 foot view of visualization was probably not the most utilitarian of ideas, I did appreciate the fact that I was getting a nice overview of the importance of proper visualizations and the theory behind what is good and what is bad. Not that I think I ever fully realized my goals of making kick-ass visualizations.

Years, age and more education later and I still know the difference between a good visual and a bad one and yet, I’m still not sure I could easily create one. I still architect visualizations for work and I think that a visual is only as good as the data you have underneath. furthermore, visualizations are only as effective as person creating the visual has an understanding of the underlying data. And I think this is the rub. And the irony. Time and detailed study are required to create a visualization that people can quickly find and skim for the pertinent information. Gobs of info in a quick byte.

I’m still striving to deal with data in intelligent ways. When I come across something I really like, like the video in my very first post here, I spend some time and really look at what they’ve done and how. The Onion does them well, but I think it’s easier to build them when you aren’t as stressed about the integrity of the data, which I ended up having to do quite a bit during my five-year stint running an entertainment channel at AOL.

Complicated or nuanced data is a bit tougher to deal with. And as much as Tufte hates it, USAToday has created a level of expectation for these things. And if we are attempting to attract and audience larger than 20, it would do us well to consider that.

And again, we are back at the question that spans two Clio courses: who are building these suckers for?

I believe we can strive to cut a middle line where we remain academic and true to our standing as historians, and still make the data easy to digest and recall at a later time. After all, I think Dr. Hans Rosling toes this line pretty well in his video. I have no doubt about the veracity of the underlying data, nor do I think it’s shallow by any means.

So upon my re-read, many years later, of Visual Explanations, I think it still stands the test of time. We have more accessible data visualization tools now and a bit more experience in viewing these on the web than we did when it was first published. We can still strive to find the right balance between information and accessibility. As a budding historian, it’s certainly a goal that I have.

Though the fake ones are amusing!

funny graphs and charts
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