Data Visualization: The End of the Information Management Chain
For this blog post, I am diverting from my usual practice of discussing the platforms for information management to discussing ultimately what the platforming is all about. That is the use of the information and specifically today, the method of access growing the most is the category of data visualization.
As a backend practitioner, I’ve discovered it’s most helpful to know about this eventuality of the data I am modeling, governing, adding quality to and tuning for performance. It’s great to know the underlying queries of course, but those are the result of the data visualization.
I have thereby embarked on a journey to visualize data best. Data is trying to tell the users something and its incumbent on all parties to get those stories out.
Good Data Visualization:
• Helps people find relationships in the data
• Does not distort data
• Meets expectations with information
• Is sufficiently detailed
• Leads to action taking
• Uses familiar icons, colors and arrangements
Before talking about the eight primary ways to visualize data, I have a caution about distorting data. Data, through a visualization, can be distorted intentionally or unintentionally. Either way is undesired in a professional setting. Some ways data can be distorted are represented here:
In the first example, the perspective distorts the fact that 1995 and 1997 have the same number of engines sold. The second example distorts by making the y-axis have nonlinear points. The final graphic shows distortion by starting the y-axis at a point greater than zero and therefore the graph snippet distorts the variance.
So, staying away from distortions, what are the eight primary ways to effectively visualize data?
Let’s start with good old Bar Charts. Bar Charts compare across categories and continuous data. Multiple variables can be placed on a bar chart and best practices dictate some “white space” between bars and the avoidance of hard borders.
Next up is another standby – the Line Chart, which connects continuous data over equal intervals. Again, you can combine variables in the chart.
Moving beyond the basics, we get to Sparklines. These data-intensive small graphics are small contextual lines that give a quick sense of historical context. A nice touch is to highlight the minimum and maximum values.
Bullet Graphs take a key measure (value) and comparative measure (goal) and qualitative ranges (value vs. goal) and overlay the value onto the goal, showing expected results.
Scatter Plots correlate two quantitative dimensions so you can see the correlation, strong or otherwise. You can drive a regression line through the points as well. The points bring justification to just drawing the line. You can also see, and potentially omit, outliers on a Scatter Plot.
A favorite of mine is the Treemap. This is for when you have numerous variables to compare. Have too many values for a bar chart? A Treemap may be what you need. In the example, the categories are named, and the jobs are in colored boxes under the category. You can see how the category compares to the whole and how a value rates within a category.
Background Mapping is great for geographic (geo) mapping and creating a visual image with context. The geo can be large, like a country, or small, like a gene.
Finally, InfoGraphics can put all of the above together into a storyboard approach to data visualization. I really enjoy a good InfoGraphic. It gives me a strong quick study of the subject and is very memorable when done well. This one requires more creativity than the others to put it all together.
Of course, visualization goes beyond these eight approaches. Many organizations would, however, have their visualization – and hence, data usage – dramatically improved through good application of just these eight. A little can go a long way.
Make sure you have all eight in your toolbox and, for the other backend practitioners, take note of where our data is destined for these days.
Disclaimer: This post was brought to you by IBM for Midsize Business and opinions are my own. To read more on this topic, visit IBM’s Midsize Insider. Dedicated to providing businesses with expertise, solutions and tools that are specific to small and midsized companies, the Midsize Business program provides businesses with the materials and knowledge they need to become engines of a smarter planet.