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Visual analysis is pragmatic, not just “pretty”

So many of us who feel drawn to visual analysis can’t understand why everyone can’t see the value. “Pretty pictures,” the skeptics mutter. On Eager Eyes, Robert Kosara makes important points that I haven’t seen before.

Toward the end of his post he writes, “We need a new term.” He rejects the aged and indefinite “visualization” and the baggage-laden “visual analytics.” He prefers “visual analysis.”

Whatever we call it, it’s harder to use than it seems.

You have seen the bar and pie charts, but do you actually know what they mean? Do you know how to use them to tease the relevant information out of your data? Can you handle more than two dimensions of data and still find meaningful structures? There is so much more to visual analysis than what Excel offers you.

Good, but then he’s not clear. He writes, “The key problem is that people are much more interested in clicking through interesting pictures than learning about actual analysis work done using visualization.”

Which people? He can’t mean the ones who actually analyze. He must mean the casual users, the data consumers, the armchair analysts — and they will always click through. He writes that those who value visual analysis have to fight the idea that it’s just pretty “or risk the trivialization and marginalization of visualization as an analytic tool.”

You’d think the tide was coming in an threatening a sand castle. But from everything I’ve seen, genuine visual analysis seems to be more and more popular. Even elementary visual analysis works better than the ugly alternatives.

Who are we fighting? The ones who don’t care and never will? No, they’re no more a threat than fast food is a threat to good food. To most people, fast food is good enough — and so are pie charts.

The ones to watch out for are those who sell fast food under the good food banner — the ones who’d propagate sloppy techniques and call it visual analysis. That’ll really spoil our appetite.

For more on “good food,” don’t miss the “Information Visualization Manifesto.”

One comment

  1. Dan Murray says:

    I spent years analyzing data the old way. With visual analysis, the “whole” set of data is alive. Seeing whole sets with the appropriate tool that allows for rapidly changing the context is a different way to work.

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