Monday, October 26, 2015

Fundamentals of Pragmatic Data Visualization


Data Visualization (or DataViz as some people call it) is another of the catch phrases people use when talking about business intelligence. However, do you know what it is all about? What does it mean to visualize data? Why do you want to do it in the first place?


Let's take it down to the basics. In today's technology rich world, we are surrounded by data. To make sense of what is around us, we deal with data every minute. Whether it is the traffic lights while driving or a scatter plot showing the relation between profit and revenue; it is all about data. I talked about that in my earlier post "Data Data Everywhere... But Not a Byte of Information". 

So what is data visualization? Well, I define it as "The practice of showing data in a manner which highlights the message and leads to actionable decisions."

Let's dig deeper and identify the key building blocks or data visualization.
 

1. Showing data:
The first obvious step is to decide what data you are going to show and how. The decision can be as easy it as showing it as a table or a complex chart. There are while books written on just this topic, but the crux of all of them is to aggregate your data and show what is relevant to the other building blocks. Adding too much data will muddy the waters and take away from the actionable decision. We will talk more about this in a later post. 

2. Highlighting a message:
The purpose of sharing data is to tell the audience something. Give them a message, tell them about something they did not know... Or knew but did not want to acknowledge... (You know who among the audience are those types, we have all come across those types.) So when you are showing your data you have to keep in mind the message you want to give to the audience and highlight it so it is unmistakeable and clear. Again, keep the message simple... Try to give one message with one visualization... That works the best in most cases. 

3. The actionable decision:
The decision is what you are aiming for from showing your data and highlighting the message. It may not always be the case that each visualization or message will lead to a single decision, so you need to think about collaboration among your visualizations to achieve the final goal

Let's think back at the traffic lights example I shared at the beginning. The lights turn red telling us that there will be traffic from the other side in the intersection (the data). It highlights the data using colors, and we make an immediate decision to stop the car and wait. We all know what might happen if we don't make that decision. Thus the traffic lights are the most basic form of visualization that we see everyday. 

Think about it and use these fundamentals in your next visualization project. Make them truly beautiful works and not just a nice looking painting. And don't forget to write in and share them here. 


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