Data Visualization: Shiny Democratization

March 8, 2013

(This article was first published on Data Community DC » R, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

In organizing Data Visualization DC we focus on three themes: The Message, The Process, The Psychology. In other words, ideas and examples of what can be communicated, the tools and know-how to get it done, and how best to communicate. We know intuitively and from experience that the best communication comes in the form of visualizations, and we know there are certain approaches that are more effective than others. What is it about certain visualizations that stimulate memory? Perhaps because we’re naturally visual creatures, perhaps visuals allow multiple ideas to be associated with one object, perhaps visuals bring people together and create a common reference for further fluid discussion. Let’s explore these ideas.

Rembrant&MemoryVisualization is the Natural Medium

No one really has the answer.  The best visualizers have traditionally been artists, and we know that any given artwork speaks to some and not to others.  Visualizations help you think in new ways, make you ask new questions, but each person will ask different questions and there is no one size fits all.  Visualizations will help you have a conversation without even speaking, much the way Khan Academy allows study on your own time.  Trying to turn this into a science is a noble effort, and articles like “The eyes have it” do an excellent job outlining the cutting edge, but when we have to use visualizations to conduct our work more efficiently we know the first question in communicating is “who’s the audience?”  There are certainly best practices (no eye charts, good coloring, associated references, etc.) but the same information will vary in its presentation for each audience.

FoodVizCase in point, everyone has to eat, everyone knows food from their perspective, so if we want to communicate nutrition facts why not know use your audience’s craving for delicious looking food to draw them into exploring the visualization.  Fat or Fiction  does an excellent job of this, and I can tell you I never would have known cottage cheese had such a low nutritional value next to cheddar if they weren’t juxtaposed for easy comparison.

Ultimately there is a balance and “If you focus more attention on one part of the data, you are ultimately taking attention away from another part of the data,” explains Amitabh Varshney, director of the Institute for Advanced Computer Studies at the University of Maryland, US.  You can attempt to optimize this by hacking your learning, but if you’re as curious as I am you need some way of exploring memory on a regular basis to learn for yourself, it shouldn’t have to be a never-ending checklist of best practices.


Personally I believe that social memes are an example of societal memory, they shape and define our culture giving us objects to reference in conversation.  Looking at the relationships in the initial force-graph presentation of the meme, I can’t help but think of neural patterns, the basis of our own memory.  We’re all familiar with this challenge when we meet someone from another country, or another generation, and we draw an analogy with a favorite movie, song, actor, etc.; If the person is familiar with the social meme the reference immediately invokes thoughts and memories, which we use to continue the flow of the conversation and introduce new ideas.  The Harlem Shake: anatomy of a viral meme captures how memes emerge over time, and allows you to drill down all the way to what actions people took in different contexts.  My goal in studying this chart is to come away with how to introduce ideas for each audience, through visualizations or otherwise, to maximum information retention.

The post Data Visualization: Shiny Democratization appeared first on Data Community DC.

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