Drowning In Data? Try Data Visualization

Can visualizations help us make sense of IoT and big data?


As two of the hottest topics in the digital world, it’s unsurprising that everyone is looking to get a grasp of the Internet of Things and big data. But with the sectors necessarily dispersed, it can be difficult – especially for those not involved in the industry day-to-day – to get an overall picture. Who are the key players in the IoT and how far will the network extend? How will we make sense of the vast quantities of data now at our fingertips?

This is where data visualizations can prove an invaluable tool, according to leading data journalist David McCandless, who was speaking at a recent talk hosted by quantitative research and technology company G-Research at the London Science Museum.

Through an interactive data visualization tour of the IoT, Mr McCandless – who has authored the best-selling books Information is Beautiful and Knowledge is Beautiful – demonstrated how users could interact with visualizations at the level they required, whether that meant a top-line overview of the industry or an insight into the individual companies involved.

First came the bare facts: over 26 billion connected ‘things’, ranging from cars to coffee machines, in the IoT network by 2020, up from around 7 billion in 2014, according to a forecast by Gartner. A market value of $2.3 trillion increasing to $14.6 trillion over the same period. Two-thirds of people are planning to buy ‘connected home’ technologies, while half are considering wearables too.

There’s no doubt that IoT is big business. But what if you wanted to know more about the primary sectors that make up IoT? The visualization laid them out by scale: transport, healthcare, retail, and so on. With a click, a user could then open up each sector to reveal the key players and their main focuses.

Such accessible methods of presenting large reams of information are becoming increasingly crucial in this age of big data. 'It allows us to focus on what’s important in the sea of data that surrounds us and maybe even drowns us,' Mr McCandless said. 'We need data that you or I can relate to, and visualizations are mediating between the vast seas of data and everyday life.'

He added that, like IoT, big data is an area that more and more companies are seeking to utilize – but that few are doing so to the extent they could.

'Big data is a noun, but it also describes a process. To big data is a process that involves six steps. The first two are gathering and handling large amounts of data. The next two are the structuring and examining of the data. And finally it’s about discovering something within the data and delivering that back to your organization or the world. A lot of organizations are cycling around the first four stages. They’re hoarding and warehousing large amounts of data, and they’re doing a little bit of analytics. But they’re not really penetrating the discovery and delivery side.'

The interplay between big data and data visualization will only grow more pertinent thanks to the internet. Mr McCandless believes that using the world wide web is installing a sense of visual design in us, which will prove beneficial in making sense of the ever-growing levels of information available to us.

'All of us are being exposed to an information design medium in the internet, and it’s training us to expect information and visualization to come together,' he noted. 'The power of visualization is that it’s a compression technique – there’s a huge amount of data being put into it. It’s like an MP3 of knowledge, and yet the cognitive overload is virtually zero.'

With the IoT set to continue its ascent, and with the ongoing additions to big data this will entail, it seems likely that methods of discovering and delivering insights as well as just gathering or examining the raw information will continue to rise in importance too.


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