Why data visualization matters

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We've all met people a bit too enamored with reporting tchotchkes. I'm talking about folks who don't know the meaning of the word overkill. They don't understand that one can answer relatively simple questions (based on static data) without the aid of visuals. Examples include:

  • How have sales changed in the last quarter?
  • How much do our customers owe us?
  • How much do we owe our vendors?
  • How many employees did we hire last week?
  • What are our current inventory levels?

But what if things aren't so simple? For instance, how long would it take you to read a simple list of which NFL teams were most popular by each region of the United States?

I'm guessing a long time.

It's much easier to see the results.


More than ever, data isn't so static and simple.

This begs the question, How do we understand and interpret real-time, continuous and complex streams of raw data? (Yes, I'm talking about The Matrix here.) And what if the data is multidimensional?

Put simply, these types and amounts of data are impossible to interpret without interactive visual mechanisms, a point I made in The Visual Organization:

There’s little doubt that basic, static pie charts and even infographics can still tell a story. But...contemporary dataviz tools allow for a high degree of interactivity, motion, and animation. Technological advancements allow users to play with data and discover new relationships among variables. Visual Organizations create data visualizations with embedded interactivity. These types of visualizations allow users to easily and quickly ask and answer questions. In the end, better business decisions result.

Visualizing data today is almost always a good idea, but should you take my word for it? And why is that the case, anyway? In Information Visualization: Perception for Design, Colin Ware writes:

The human visual system is a pattern seeker of enormous power and subtlety. The eye and the visual cortex of the brain form a massive parallel processor that provides the highest bandwidth channel into human cognitive centers. At higher levels of processing, perception and cognition are closely interrelated, which is why the words understanding and seeing are synonymous.

Brass tacks: Our brains process information much, much better in a visual manner because they're wired that way. This is doubly true when dealing with petabytes of unstructured data.

Simon Says: Get visual and interactive

Without interactive data visualization tools, they're no way for us to effectively explore massive, complex datasets. We cannot gain valuable insights into our business. We cannot drill down and around. We cannot look at data from different angles and ask better questions.

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About Author

Phil Simon

Author, Speaker, and Professor

Phil Simon is a keynote speaker and recognized technology expert. He is the award-winning author of eight management books, most recently Analytics: The Agile Way. He consults organizations on matters related to strategy, data, analytics, and technology. His contributions have appeared in The Harvard Business Review, CNN, Wired, The New York Times, and many other sites. He teaches information systems and analytics at Arizona State University's W. P. Carey School of Business (Department of Information Systems). He also runs 5marbles, an Agile software-development shop.

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