Data Visualization — Few's Examples
I attended a United Way meeting last week that was hosted at an overburdened county government agency site in south Columbus. The gist of the meeting was discussing the bleakness of the economy and what that could or should mean to the work of the committee. The head of the government agency did a brief presentation on what the agency does and what they are seeing, and the presentation included the distribution of a packet of charts with data the agency tracks.
I was struck by how absolutely horridly the information was presented. A note at the bottom of each chart indicated that the same staff member had compiled each chart. Yet, there was absolutely no consistency from one chart to the next: the color palette changed from chart to chart (and none of the palettes were particularly good), a 3-D effect was used on some charts and not others (3-D effects are always bad, so I suppose I’d rather inconsistency than having 3-D effects on every chart), and totally different chart types were used to present similar information. On several of the bar charts, each bar was a different color, which made for an extremely distracting visualization of the information.
I glanced around the room and saw that most of the other committee members had furrowed brows as they studied the information. It occurred to me that there was an undue amount of mental exertion going on to understand what was being presented that would have been better spent thinking through the implications of the information.
Later that evening, I found myself popping around the web — ordering my own copy of Stephen Few’s Show Me the Numbers, and, later, poking around on Few’s site. Specifically, I spent some time on his Examples page, browsing through the myriad before/after examples that clearly illustrate how the same information, presented with the same amount of effort, but using some basic common principles, dramatically reduce the mental effort required to understand what is going on.
It’s a fascinating collection of examples. And Show Me the Numbers is a seminal book on the topic.