We have all seen data visualization grow in stature over the past decade and it is now an essential part of our daily lives.
Newspaper articles that discuss statistics uniformly communicate these through visualizations, sports teams are critiqued through graphs and animations, and in boardrooms, leaders see the data they want through interactive dashboards. But what can actually be done with visualizations? What is the point of them and why have they become so important?
Showing complex data sets in simple ways
The most important element of any data visualization is the ability to show something complex as simply as possible. If you have a dataset with hundreds of different points, trying to see what the correlation is from an excel spreadsheet is going to be almost impossible. The ability to clearly see trends allows decision makers to act quickly.
We have seen technologies like in-memory computing analyzing data at speeds never before possible and if the analysis can't be communicated as quickly, then having this computing power is essentially meaningless. Visualization allows people to see trends instantly, streamlining the decision-making process.
This is shown concisely with this visualization from NASA that looks at how Mars may have lost its atmosphere due to solar winds. It would be almost impossible to show this kind of data through numbers, but an interactive visualization shows it perfectly.
Speed of understanding
As mentioned above, the speed of understanding that comes from visualization is a significant benefit of the practice, but not only in the way that company leaders can make decisions.
Increasingly, visualizations allow companies to show the benefits of their products through imaging rather than either audio or text. These have evolved significantly over the years and one of the earliest examples would be the use of the infamous blue liquid test for absorbent materials. You could say 'my kitchen towel soaks up 50% more liquid' but showing this visually had significantly more impact on the consumer.
Today, we see the use of visualizations in every kind of technical advert, discussing fuel efficiency in cars, effectiveness of insulation or even just potential money savings. Effective use of visualization in this way makes it clear how your product outperforms competitors, without trying to over explain concepts.
Engagement with data
As technology has evolved and the ability of data software has allowed people to do more and more with the data in front of them, visualization has become a key tool to look at the impact that potential changes may have.
Through manipulating variables within the data or just focussing on how variation in only one element could impact the rest, it is possible to easily see the results. With traditional methods of displaying data this would not be possible and, although other elements may change alongside the variable, seeing the overall picture would be very difficult and time-consuming.
It also allows leaders to look at data in a holistic way, viewing the bigger picture rather than trying to concentrate on smaller elements individually. It gives a far more relationship-based view of how changes in one area may impact the business in a completely unexpected way in an unpredictable area.
We can see how this has been done impressively by the Trussell Trust with a variety of their visualizations about food bank use across the UK.
Watch gradual changes over time
Some of the most powerful visualizations come from the gradual changes being made over a long period of time. On paper figures would not necessarily be able to truly show gradual shifts that became huge changes. We have seen this is one of the most valuable uses for visualizations as it allows the changes to be seen simply, rather than contemplated through numbers.
In business terms this could be from the headcount of a company, changes in revenue streams over time or even just the number of visitors to a website over time. It gives people the opportunity to see the big picture over time, something that is essential in today’s business environment.
A prime example of this is with the ways in which the polar ice caps have been disappearing, but is equally useful in a business environment.