Friday, April 28, 2017

Visualizing Data

I would like to take this blogging opportunity to spend a moment talking about one of my data visualization heroes, Edward Tufte.

Edward Tufte combines what we tend to think of as the most left-brained fields, quantitative analysis and statistics, and melds it wonderfully with the most right-brained field, art. He has written many books on this subject and discusses everything from politics to how an ineffective presentation style can have awful ramifications, like send a person to death row or may have prevented the Columbia Shuttle disaster.

He is a Professor Emeritus at Yale University in 3 departments: Political Science, Statistics, and Computer Science. He lives on a large plot of land in Connecticut, where he displays his abstract art sculptures.

Tufte has long been a critic of PowerPoint. In the essay "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint," he lays out many reasons why he believes that PowerPoint is a waste of everyone's time and doesn't adequately relay important information to the audience.

His main point is that a PowerPoint outline forces the audience to think sequentially rather than cyclicly, which makes it more difficult to compare things side by side and understand relationships between concepts. Not all projects should or need to be sequential, particularly when multiple topics are being talked about in one presentation. He says that this is particularly true of statistics, in which the basic idea is a comparison between sets of information. Our brains cannot grasp these concepts sequentially. An alternative? Tufte claims that the best way to get across information is to write up a short handout of information for people to read in the first 5-10 minutes of the presentation. Then put up one figure or data image and have a discussion. Too much information and the audience becomes lost. An audience cannot hold all slides in its head at once, and being overwelmed with information leads to not retaining any of it.

                                Image by Edward Tufte

Click here for an article written by Tufte for Wired Magazine:

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