Visualisation Reflections: #5 Head of Data Visualisation
This is a follow-up post to my fifth article in the Visualisation Insights series which I published just before Christmas. The purpose of this companion series is to optimise the learning opportunities from each insights article, reflecting on the ideas, issues and observations to emerge.
Why did I choose this subject?
I first came across Alan when I stumbled upon a couple of his presentations decks on Google (here and here). I very excited to learn about the existence of the Data Visualisation Centre and also very drawn to the perspectives and messages Alan was sharing in these presentation snippets.
His unique position as Head of the Data Visualisation Centre, for the Office of National Statistics, offers an outstanding platform from which he can effect best practice visualisation techniques and so I was very keen to explore this world with him.
Impressions prior to the interview?
As I’ve just mentioned my first and only exposure to Alan, to date, was via a series of presentation documents. Whilst the contents of these slides only provided a very brief insight into his views you could immediately pick up the sense that here was somebody who had a very balanced and principle-driven expertise in visualisation.
It was more than enough evidence for me to track him down for an interview.
Impressions after the interview?
Responding to the large volume of questions and topics areas I threw at Alan, he has provided a fantastically insightful article that absolutely encapsulates the aim of this series.
There are too many highlights to make it worthwhile mentioning them all, I’d simply urge everyone to have a thorough read through. However, there are a few things I would pick out.
Its fascinating to discover how people have arrived into the world of visualisation. In Alan’s case this journey commenced from his background in cartography. He typifies many of the people I have come across in the visualisation field who discovered it by challenging conventions, asking questions about why things are done the way they are, ‘surely there is a better way’…
Alan talks about “Rosling’s last 6cm” and this is a great reference to capture the traditionally abandoned importance of effective design of communication. He goes on to mention that the remit of the Data Visualisation Centre reflects how “ONS takes the communication of its statistics seriously” – this is hugely encouraging given the vast array of statistical data this organisation is sat on.
Central to Alan’s appeal, a theme that stands out in the presentation slides I mentioned above, is his exceptional appreciation of the purpose of visualisation and its principles. There is so much information to support this but a couple of passages especially enforce it:
I also admire Hans Rosling who has been very keen to push visualisation to support decision-making and public policy. I am always inclined to support the people who think of visualisation in these terms rather than as a pure ‘beautification’ exercise.
The information in the data is beautiful, not the graphic itself.
A particularly interesting insight comes in response to my question about the opportunities and threats that exist with the era of open data, especially in respect of non-experts. Alan offers a very articulate and reasonable response, one that challenges my own perceptions:
…I find the issue of non-expertise interesting and potentially patronising. Traditional notions of statistical literacy, based on numeracy, are ripe for challenging, I think. For example, here in the UK, Camelot had to withdraw a lottery scratchcard a couple of years ago (‘cool cash’) because it required people to compare negative numbers and too many people found that difficult. Poor numeracy was acting as a barrier to problem-solving. However, it would have been perfectly feasible to present the same information in a different way (for example, to ask them to identify a warmer or colder temperature, rather than a higher or lower number) and many of the same people would have been able to solve the problem. We are sometimes lazy in that we are happy to let an issue like poor numeracy act as a barrier when there are ways around it. I’m not saying we should ignore numeracy issues – but improving numeracy is something with a very, very large turning circle. 15 million adults in the UK lack Level 1 numeracy skills – but these are people – intelligent people – who need to handle data now, so there’s a challenge up front for people working within the data/information visualisation.
This final sentence acts as a highly motivating ‘call to arms’ for us in the visualisation field to keep pushing for new ways of helping to engage with those who struggle with numeracy matters.
Looking forward, the 2011 census will offer an intensely deep data event for Alan’s team to tackle in pursuit of their principle motto “making numbers meaningful“. This will be a huge challenge but also a great opportunity for them to deliver access and facilitate understanding for a new generation. As the following paragraph suggests, this particular data visualisation task appears to be in safe hands:
Visualisation gives us a chance to let people see official data in a more personal, meaningful way. They can visualise their own inflation patterns based on their own spending habits, compare their neighbourhoods and cities with others, see how long they are expected to live, all over a cup of coffee, using just a web browser. That’s an exciting thought and I think we are only just scratching the surface. The real power of all this convergence is going to be what happens when we bring different data sources together – as long as its done skillfully, rather than just for the sake of it.
Finally, my favourite passage in this interview, when I asked Alan to describe his favoured learning resources:
There are plenty. Edward Tufte’s books are probably the ones you would keep on your coffee table if you had normal folk coming round for a coffee. Stephen Few’s books are the safety-first manuals we keep around next to the First Aid kit.
The question is what do you put on your coffee table when the weird folk come round??
Many thanks again to Alan for his generous time, effort and exceptionally thorough and interesting responses to my many questions. I’ve re-read this article many times and keep finding something new each time. I wish him and his colleagues at the Data Visualisation Centre all the best for 2011. You can keep a track on Alan’s discoveries via his graphboy del.ici.ous account.
Look out for future insights articles, with many interesting interviews and interviewees lined up…