Expert Insight: 'We Should Be Taking Full Advantage Of Our Ability To See Patterns In The Data Using Our Eyes'

We talk to Ken Cherven, Data Visualizations Specialist at GM


Ahead of his presentation at the Data Visualization Summit in San Francisco on April 19 & 20, we spoke to Ken Cherven, Data Visualizations Specialist at GM. 

Ken is a data analyst, visualizer, and author with 20 years of experience turning complex data into easily understood visualizations. Cherven works extensively with multiple visualization tools including R, D3, QGIS, Mapbox, Tableau, and Gephi. He is the author of two books on Gephi, and has recently launched a new data-driven visual storytelling website, Many of Cherven’s visualizations can be found on his original site, In addition to baseball, Cherven is motivated by jazz, food, beer, wine, and family. He has lived in Detroit, Michigan for the last 20 years.

What has been the single biggest change in data visualizations today and 5 years ago?

With the advent and continued growth of tools such as Tableau and QlikSense, plus the emergence of tools using Python, Javascript, and R, we have seen a greater emphasis on user interaction relative to where we were 5 years ago. So rather than having a series of static Excel, SAS, or R charts, both designers and end users now have much greater capability to explore the data beyond the initial chart. This has allowed for better interaction between an analyst and the business owner and can lead to further interrogation of patterns in the data.

Which piece of emerging technology do you think is going to most impact data visualization?

This is always a challenge to predict, but I believe the continued ability to capture information at close to real-time speed from a variety of sources will play a major role. In my experience, most of data visualization today is not functioning this way but is used more in the realm of taking traditional business metrics and making them more visually appealing. I think the future holds real opportunities for data visualization to capture many of the flows that occur within the daily life of a business, regardless of whether they take place on the web, via a call center, or through mobile devices, or even in the way a business processes transacts beyond the customer purview.

Do you think you need to understand data to effectively visualize it?

I am an absolute advocate for understanding data prior to visualizing it. Too often, I have seen visualizations based on data that is either flawed or displayed out of context, so that it doesn't really make sense in the final visualization. This is especially critical in a business context, where your end users may be somewhat familiar with the data. Making obvious mistakes interpreting or displaying the data can be damaging to your credibility.

How do you see data visualization developing from a business perspective in the next 5 years?

A lot has been made of the self-service possibility for all business users to instantly turn into data visualizers, but I don't see this materializing. What I believe will happen is the continuing evolution where different parts of the business begin engaging in data visualization at a greater rate. This will include parts of the enterprise that are not customer-facing, but would benefit greatly from more sophisticated visualization of their business metrics. Finance, IT, and engineering functions could all function more efficiently if they can move away from databases and spreadsheets and toward visualization platforms.

What can the audience expect to take away from your presentation in San Francisco?

I hope to leave the audience with the impression that data visualization can be as useful, or even more so, for the analyst working with the data as it is for the business user. Data visualization has made exploratory analysis more efficient as well as more engaging compared to the old days of using SQL, Excel, and SAS to analyze large volumes of data. While these tools still have their role, it is critical that we as data visualization leaders avail ourselves of the wonderful tools available to us now and in the future. Whether we are creating engaging charts, dashboards, maps, or network graphs, we should be taking full advantage of our ability to see patterns in the data using our eyes, which will then lead us to more efficient and fruitful analysis.

You can catch Ken's presentation at the Data Visualization Summit in San Francisco on April 19 & 20.

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