[Ed. note: This is a rant by our founder, Tracy Allison Altman.] I love data visualization as much as the next guy. I'm big on Big Data! And I quantify myself every chance I get.

But I've had my fill of shiny data that doesn't help answer important questions. Things like: What explains these outcomes? What do the experts say? How can we reduce crime?

Crime data viz Source: Tableau.

Does new technology contribute nothing more than pretty pictures and mindless measurement? Of course not. We can discover meaningful patterns with analytics and business intelligence: Buying behavior, terrorist activity, health effects.

But not all aha! moments are created equal. Looky here! There's poverty in Africa! People smile more in St. Louis! Some of this stuff has marginal usefulness for decision makers. A recent New York Times piece underscores the apparent need for arty manipulations of relatively routine data. In A Makeover for Maps, we learn that:

  • “It doesn’t work if it’s not moving.” (Eric Rodenbeck of Stamen Design)
  • "No more than 18 colors at once. You can't consume more than 18." (Christian Cabot, CEO of wildly successful Tableau Software)

I dare say these aren't the aha! moments strategic decision makers are looking for. This seems like a good time to re-visit the Onion's classic, Nation Shudders at Large Block of Uninterrupted Text.

Crime research forest plotShiny objects are great conversation starters. But many of us a) are busy trying to solve big problems, and b) don't need special effects to keep us interested in our professional lives. We need explanations of causes and effects, transparency into research findings, analysis of alternatives. Take the forest plot, for instance, described very effectively by Hilda Bastian. Here you don't just see crime stats: You discover that some tax-funded social programs might actually increase crime.

Decision makers need presentations that are better suited to them. That's the real data story.

Other examples of gee-whiz visualizations that signal a worrisome trend: The Do You Realize? dashboard, winner of a QlikView BI competition, as reported by Software Advice. And Have you ever wondered how fast you are spinning around earth's rotational axis? Probably not, but now you can find out anyway!

On a brighter note, the very talented Douglas van der Molen is quoted in Makeover for Maps, saying he is “looking for ways to augment human perception to help in complex decision making.” Maybe today's sophisticated tools will lead to something game-changing for problem solvers. Or maybe we'll keep manufacturing faux aha! moments.

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