Data visualisation communicates large amounts of information very quickly to audiences – contrasts and patterns stand out more when data is presented as an image, rather than text. A data visualisation is a graphic or diagram that shows all of the relevant information at the same time in one ‘snapshot’. This is faster than reading and comparing lines of data in, for example, a statistical table. Especially if the statistical table is very long, with thousands of lines to absorb.
It is important to ask a question and then attempt to answer it with data visualisation, so that irrelevant information can be filtered out (Reas & McWilliams, 2010). There are different data visualisation techniques to use, depending on what needs to be shown and to whom.
Network diagrams show simple connections between objects and this can help identify the order of connections in a set, and the location of central ‘hubs’. When a network diagram is used in an instruction manual for a household electrical appliance, it might indicate how to plug it in or how to connect it to a second appliance, which is very useful for consumers. A network diagram of a public transport system might show the biggest stations with the most connections, so that commuters know where they can change trains or it might tell the train company which station will need the most platforms and ticket machines.
Another type of data visualisation is dynamic maps, where extra information is added to ordinary maps so that new ideas are communicated (Reas & McWilliams, 2010). In the video The European Debt Crisis Visualized, dynamic maps show the complex trade barriers between European countries before the creation of the European Union and why the interconnection of these countries made the debt crisis such a serious issue afterwards. It is far easier and quicker to understand the information about tariffs, currencies and debt collection through the maps in this video than it would be to read a chapter about it.
Screenshot of a dynamic map (Jarvis, 2014)
Ultimately, data visualisation helps people understand large amounts of information and the important takeaway concepts. Instead of having to guess what the key points are within pages of boring data, they can see them clearly presented in a graphic instead. Data visualisation also makes information more interesting, so that people find it easier to learn new things.
Jarvis, J. (2014) The European Debt Crisis Visualized, Vimeo. [screenshot]. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/91098314
Reas, C. & McWilliams, C. (2010) Form + Code in Design, Art, and Architecture, New York, Princeton Architectural Press.