What I learnt about data visualisation [#datavis]

Cool kids like me get @guardianclasses on data visualisation for Christmas – from their significant others no less. So last night we traipsed through the very much gentrified (in comparison to when I lived there a decade ago) King’s Cross to the swanky Guardian HQ to join 150 other pinko-liberals and learn about creating a story from data. For those of you who haven’t snoozed off by now, let me explain why this excites me: data is what drives our economy, it surrounds us – just like the Force, but better; because it can be interpreted and packed into lovely infographics.

Why is this exciting? Because visualising data helps tell a story, facilitates understanding, and may protect us from the dark side… you get my drift: it is more and more data and information driven models power pretty much our world – and we have learn not only to deal with that, but to help shape it. This is complex, and data visualisation can help us both understand and communicate our ever more complex environment. In an earlier life I used to build databases – assuming that a good report would always make us see the light. I have learnt over time though, that the way information is shared is probably just as important as to which information is shared. Too often it’s not the better idea that wins, it’s the one that’s been better explained.

And here is where data visualisation comes in – visual beings that we are, our attention can be drawn to where it should be. And also, understanding data visualisation will help us understand if someone tries to shift our attention from where it should be to where they want it to be – just check out Iain Duncan Smith’s impressive work on that front. In my review of 2013, I made the prediction that I will need to learn about interpreting and understanding data – and this masterclass was a first step. While I am happy to geek out about data, there is a specific professional pursuit behind this: I feel that a lot within the world of careers and employability is ‘best practice’ driven, and that for many an intervention, there is only scant evidence.

So at work, I am embarking on a project to interpret and understand the various data that we hold on our clients/students, and their journey through their course of study. This is to better understand their needs – so we can better address them. For this, a lot of work will be necessary to analyse all this data, and come to conclusions – but also to explain them. And this is where I’m betting on visualisation. That’s a learning curve, and a steep one – but I find the challenge both motivating, and using the more academically inclined part of my brain rewarding. So I’m closing with a great video, which exemplifies the above points in my humble opinion most impressively.

January 21st, 2014 by