Data Visualization: How (2 of 2)

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The short answer, as you know, is that it’s impossible to tell you how to be insightful and imaginative in a single blog post. All I can do is point you in the general direction, and (hopefully) ignite a little spark.What’s the Goal? and, Where to Begin?

I previously talked about the growing calls for effective data visualizations; we have access to all this great information, and there are insights in there somewhere – but we need just the right point of view to rise above the cloud of data and see the real opportunity. It helps if you have experienced that rush of insight when looking at a particularly impactful graphic; not just a good looking slide, it calls out something important in a particularly effective way. Haven’t we all watched that earnest TV lawyer pull the winning argument out of the blue [right before the final commercial break] and win the big case?

Of course, it’s not enough just to want it – you have to have a little reverse-engineering in your soul. You need confidence & bravado (I can and should be able to create those killer pictures), hunger & curiosity (how did they do that?), and confidence to know that you can – with a little hacking. It also helps to have the blissful ignorance to assume that it’s within your technical grasp.

Step 1: Find Someone who Knows – and Follow them Around!

I’m a big fan of the “follow him around” method for learning new technology – not classroom instruction, more like a series of specific examples of applied technology. I had seen plenty of examples of presentations that I thought were very effective, but I didn’t understand what was happening, what exactly was making them so effective. I had to find someone that could talk about putting together effective presentations – and had the good fortune to attend a seminar by Edward Tufte. Sure, you get some nice books, great to page through – but like most technical manuals, they don’t really make sense until you’ve watched Tufte deconstruct the graphics. I learned the importance of taking extraneous ink off the page, and how scale, color and shape can illustrate and/or obfuscate. I didn’t walk away from that experience with specific skills as much as clarified ideas – and a hunger and curiosity for more.

Step 2: Find Lots of Examples – and Steal some Inspiration!

Over the past few months, I’ve been following a number of blogs dedicated to ideas around information visualization – more skilled practitioners to follow around! The links below to take you to particularly interesting examples; your task is to subscribe to them all and regularly scan for ideas …

Information is Beautiful

Cool Infographics

Flowing Data

New York Times

Step 3: Get Your Coding Hands Dirty!

Remember, after you are done being wowed by the presentation – figure out how you could build one.

  • The old stalwart Excel comes with an ever growing list of graph types. Can’t find the one you want? Try to hack at the standard stuff using VBA!
  • Sometimes a blog post will point you to some utilities. No, I never heard of Gource, but you can bet I’m looking for a project to use it with!
  • Open source has a lot of interesting tools out there – from jQuery addins to full-blown BI suites – lots of tools to load up with your data.

Remember – get inspired, find some starting points, and get building! the only way to really understand how to create insightful, impactful visualizations is to do a lot of experimentation.

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