Curated Content's Blog

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31

Oct 2011

Why You Need to Visualize Big Data

Posted by / in Blog, Infographics, Motion Graphics / 6 comments

We live in an age of data. It’s everywhere.  From the basic metric package that tells you how many people visited your blog on cheese to the thousands of pieces of data and analytics that flow daily into the clutches of Big business – it’s everywhere we look and shaping everything we do.  And now, we want to see it.

According to a recent article on Big Data by the highly respected business outfit, McKinsey Quarterly,

Radical customization, constant experimentation, and novel business models will be new hallmarks of competition as companies capture and analyze huge volumes of data.

McKinsey is pointing to the fact that increasingly, data analysis is becoming a key corporate asset, and a company’s effectiveness it collect it, analyse and share it (both internally and to customers as a value add) will determine their success amongst competitors.  At the same time, along with all these advances in data collation, comes a new problem in how to display it. And even more importantly, how to display it in a way that makes it accessible – and that’s where we get excited.

Thankfully, also emerging at a rapidly innovative pace is the visualization field combining the skills of developers, statisticians, designers, illustrators and journalists, whose job it is to make the massive scale of inhuman data, well...human, or in other words, make all that Big Data accessible.

If this is hard to comprehend, it’s worth noting that we’re already used to seeing some data visualization tools being used quite commonly today. A good example of data visualisation that is standard practice is the tag cloud, where words are counted and visualized by font size in a cluster. Anyone can immediately look at the tag cloud and see, depending on size, how many times the word is mentioned in the article or site. This provides an immediate visual understanding of the main themes represented in the content.  A famous example of the tag cloud can be seen in the analysis of Barack Obama’s inaugural Presidential speech below. The guys at ReadWriteWeb also gave the inaugural speeches of Bush and Clinton the cloud tag treatment, making for some interesting comparisons on Presidential themes.

Other ways to visualize data can include colour patterns and the size of lines (thickness) on a graphical map. You can image just how much data could be visualized over time via strength or weakness of a certain colour. Essentially, good data visualization will exploit key data narratives with visual clues that our humble brains can process a lot faster than the effort it takes to make assessments and comparisons of numerical data in a table. Suddenly, well designed graphics can present huge and complex data stories in a way that is dynamic and exciting – just ask Google’s Aaron Koblin who plotted a map of every commercial flight in America over a 24 hour time period using brighter lines to identify flight routes with heavier traffic.

And naturally as we move onto more sophisticated devices, we’ll expect to be served up more sophisticated visual offerings – we’ll want our visualizations to be animated and to set to awesome music!

Visualization is enjoying the excitement of the new right now, but clearly, is on its way to being the normal technique used to display the findings of all this Big Data we have at our disposal.  And with the ever increasing daily dashboards of data (big and small) we are expected to comprehend, the need to grasp and process data quickly is going to be a business and consumer expectation.

Finally, data visualization means theatre. Thanks to the imagination and power of data visualization, there now exists plenty of opportunities for business leaders to face an audience by standing in front of a giant screen and letting the data be the visual star of the show – assuming the story is a good one to tell, of course.

** Main image is an infographic  illustrating China as a global force via its investments and business dealings, published by The Heritage Foundation.

 

 

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