infographics

Being a Data Gourmet

I grew up in a bilingual household where we spoke French and English. Many of us who've been exposed to other languages realize that there are some words that just don't translate well into English. One of the words that got used often in our family was the French word gourmand.  Its closest translation in English is gluttony, but how often does anybody ever say that word?  Probably the simplest way to think of it is the antithesis of gourmet, or even better, someone who prefers quantity over quality.

While there can sometimes be a negative connotation with the phrase, "Il est gourmand," ("He is gourmand"), it can also be just a recognition of someone's preferences.

To this day, even though my French has gotten pretty bad, I still occasionally refer to people as gourmet or gourmand.  It could be when I'm sitting in a restaurant, standing behind them in line at Costco or even hearing about their current data initiative.

What is a data gourmet?

gourmet
gourmet

Data is to an Information Connoisseur as Food is to a Gourmet Chef

Just like a food gourmet, a data gourmet is someone interested in something distinctive, visually appealing and inspired by results or action taken. It isn't about hordes of numbers or metrics. It's about getting the right metrics in place, putting them in the right context and letting them stand out.

Think of the chef who prepares the meal like the one in the picture. He or she not only wants to stimulate your taste buds, but also hopes that their use of color, plating and white space will appeal to you and your visual senses, as well.

What is your data gourmand?

gourmand_550px
gourmand_550px

Prioritize Data Quality Over Data Quantity

So, as I alluded to earlier, not everyone is a gourmet. Many people value quantity over quality. As it relates to data, someone who is a gourmand is probably unsure of what they really want to do with all the data they are requesting. They figure it best to get as much as they can while they can, especially if they aren't sure what they will do with it.

Unfortunately, they probably have never been exposed to a really useful dashboard or visualization. Ultimately, what they think will satiate them and potentially their users is as much data as possible. However, the volume of data would net a number of metrics, charts and gauges, etc. that would be more than they could ever consume.

Working with a Data Gourmand

When you find yourself in a situation where you are working with a data gourmand (and you will - it's just a matter of time), don't look down your well-trained visualization palate at them.  Instead, gently guide them along a path of visual-epicurean transformation.

Most likely, they're going to want to load up their dashboard plate with every bit of data junk they can find.  Start by getting them to see their dashboard as a blank palette to meet specific goals vs. an empty pallet to load up everything they don't need.

As they select different metrics, invest the extra time to train them to carefully select just the right information that provides the balance their data diet needs for a healthy body.  As they make their selections, help them to see that it's okay to have favorite metrics.  As Amanda Cox of the New York Times says, "Data isn't like your kids.  You don't have to pretend to love them equally."

Finally, if you need some help, refresh your skills with the Juice white paper, "A Guide to Creating Dashboards People Love to Use".

Once you've finished, ask yourself these questions.  Does everything in front of your gourmand now have a reason to be there? Did they pause in appreciation or comment that they can't wait to use it?  If so, you may be well on your way to executive data-chef status.

Have a data gourmand/gourmet story of your own?  We'd love to hear about it in the comments below.

Memorable or Actionable or Both.

Recently, I saw the largest concentration of iPad users in the world, controlled a computer screen with my eyes, and learned about our looming robotic future. No, Apple doesn’t have a technology lab on the moon, but I did attend CHI 2010 (short for Computer Human Interaction - the entire program along with papers and authors are referenced here). I left with a bit bigger toolkit and plenty of research to consider further. One such effort investigating chart junk has been reviewed by EagerEyes’ Robert Kosara. I share his enthusiasm for research in visualization, but let’s look more closely at some issues the paper raises and consider how these findings fit into the goals of visualization.

Nothing gets information visualization designers’ feathers more ruffled than the thought of junky charts being more desirable than "Tufte-compliant" charts. I was skeptical, to say the least, in attending a presentation by Scott Bateman for a paper entitled, Useful Junk? The Effects of Visual Embellishment on Comprehension and Memorability of Charts. (The title is a bit misleading in that the paper is really about embellishments and illustration - not so much traditionally poor structural graphics often considered common "chart junk.")

Embellished vs. Plain chart

(Example of embellished vs. plain chart with same data, from the paper)

The aesthetic treatment of data presentation is a long-time debate, and Scott came all the way from Canada to answer the question: Should we use chart junk? The answer is an emphatic "maybe." The goal of the study was to look at interpretation accuracy and long-term recall, and the papers says,

our results question some of the premises of the minimalist approach to chart design.

Make charts Memorable.

Skipping the gritty details of the study, here are the findings of a provoking illustration with data embedded compared to an boring, "plain" chart:

  • more memorable over the long-term;
  • perceived as having more value and sense of chart bias; and
  • most enjoyable and easiest to remember.

More memorable is better, right? The question we should be asking is, better than what. Of course, more memorable is better than less memorable, but at what cost? And what do we really want people to remember? It’s doubtful the best way to drum up interest in data is by making it light up and do a dance to feed the public’s already marketing heavy information diet.

GOOD.is | The Richest and Poorest Neighborhoods

Your data as is mostly marketing if it looks like this: GOOD.is | The Richest and Poorest Neighborhoods

Fully embellished charts

Pros

  • Draws attention, memorable imagery
  • Little analytical thinking needed, wider audience
  • Endless diversity
  • Creative exploration
  • Graphics and illustration heavy

Cons

  • It looks and feels glossy so people will treat it with the bias of a magazine or commercial TV ad
  • Little data depth
  • Non conclusive, likely not actionable
  • Few standards, wild chart organization
  • Production costs
  • Little research, relatively cheap
  • Illustration / Graphic artist talent required

Perhaps one’s attention is more likely to be drawn to these embellished charts if they are engaged in an entertaining or passive ritual, like watching TV, browsing the web, or shuffling through a newspaper. Perhaps they get the same personal impact as the funny pages. We should consider a greater sense of bias or value message is introduced through this style of data presentation (as confirmed by the study), and that can be detrimental to a viewer’s trust. It isn’t that imagery doesn’t have a place in the same conversation with data, but there are better ways to go about drawing attention than applying illustrations to data points.

In the data presentation arena, we definitely want data to be memorable, but even more so we want data to be actionable; therefore, valuable data remains the attraction.

Make charts Actionable.

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Would you say this graphic is more or less plain than the example "plain" chart taken from the research paper earlier in the post? Would you say its more or less actionable? 

A chart is actionable if it answers enough questions of its viewer to instigate a meaningful decision or reaction to information presented. Therefore, charts are only actionable when the right information is presented to the right people with the right visual communication. 

Edward Tufte describes the use of this graphic by the New York Times that accompanied a data dense table along with a news column on the subject. It’s a simple point: in order to present meaningful, compelling, or personally motivating information, there either needs to be exactly the right data presented, given the context of the data and person, or enough dimensions and slices of data to be meaningful to a broader range of questions and needs. Supporting textual content always helps to tell the story, which builds the viewers mental model - thereby, making the data more understandable.

Non-embellished charts

Pros

Cons

No non-data graphics

Minimized distractions from data focus, no graphics or imagery suggesting bias,

Teachable, fundamental guidelines

little visual appeal unless the data density is high (which can feel overwhelming)

Sufficient data-depth emphasis

Actionable information

Requires more patience or experience from viewer.

Production costs

No illustration talent required

Research time and resources required, relatively expensive

The problem with embellishments as a primary style for getting the public engaged with data is that it continues to suggest that truly understanding how data impacts their world is beyond common thought or interest. The dimensions are minimal and value statements dominate.

But value statements aren’t always bad. Sometimes when you’re saying so little with an information-starved chart, its better to come out and say the point you’re trying to make with a single data point. Like this beautiful example from goingtorain.com

goingtorain.com

Its Communications 101: say what you’re going to say, say it, and say what you said. When the information is somewhat clearly target and not exploratory in nature, this frank approach is often more effective. Embellished charts commonly stand alone with no supporting, meaningful story or conclusion. If the information is valid and valuable enough to be published, there should at least be enough effort to find and integrate a reliable source with more info to answer questions where the chart data left the viewer wondering.

Make charts Both.

When it comes to complicated information, stop treating it as if it can be polished nicely into a single chart and that will be sufficient to create understanding, motivation, and action. Charts make data visible and play off our innate human need to create a mental image of the information story we’re presented with. We need both visual attraction / definition and concrete factual data.

Illustration, graphics, and photography trigger emotion and interest in our right brain. They give us a chance to associate ideas and create mental connections to make sense of the world. Our right brain needs "embellishment" thinking to make connections.

Meanwhile, our left brain needs values, raw facts, and the ability to measure worth. Our left brain needs "plain chart" thinking to determine the cause and effect of connections; its interested in thinking about what really matters and impacts things at this moment.

There are few visualizations that even begin to approach the balance between imagery and data.

Example 1. The Tweet Tracker visualization is at least on the right track. One may say here that illustration is used as data points, but I would suggest the technique is appropriate here because the imagery is uniquely matched, within context, as another dimension to its data category.

Winter Olympics Tweet Tracker by Stamen.

Winter Olympics Tweet Tracker by Stamen.

Example 2. Embellishments come in diverse forms. You may have seen this presentation Al Gore gave on global warming. Notice what happens at 9:08 in the video as Al continues his commentary while riding a lift on stage up the side of the chart. Do you hear the background laughter? This kind of laughter is good. You know you’re audience is engaged. Duarte Design designed an embellished visual here to grab people’s attention and make the point memorable - alongside the data chart. This engaging visual device makes the data more memorable because the data is still the center of attention.

Visualization is simply the best language to create meaningful connections between data, thereby making it valuable. All charts are related to visualization, whether its good design or not. The conversation of whether embellishments are good or bad depends on many things, but the real question we should be asking is whether they are making your data more or less valuable. It is a fine thing to attract interest to data, but not when that is a device to overlook the real care needed in preparing sufficient information. Plain charts are fine also, but likely only for quick personal projects in excel where a mental model of the data connections are already well understood.

I’m thankful for Scott’s work with his colleagues on this research, and for people like Robert who also promote appreciation for the much needed research in visualization. The theme of graphical embellishment is thrown around so much in the visualization community that it rarely receives careful deliberation, and this paper starts a purposeful conversation. However, there is a long way in working towards conclusive goals.

Other visualization related papers presented at CHI 2010:

  • Useful Junk? The Effects of Visual Embellsihment on Comprehension and Memorability of Charts.
  • ManyNets: An Interface for Multiple Network Analysis and Visualization
  • Individual Models of Color Differentiation to Improve Interpretability of Information Visualization
  • High-Precision Magnification Lenses
  • Crowdsourcing Graphical Perception: Using Mechanical Turk to Assess Visualization Design
  • Integrating Text with Video and 3D Graphics: The Effects of Text Drawing Styles on Text Readability
  • Animated UI Transitions and Perception of Time — a User Study on Animated Effects on a Mobile Screen

The Colbert Bump is Real, Colbert’s Nation Not What He Thinks it is

Stephen Colbert has mentioned that he’s having trouble getting guests during the writer’s stike. We find this puzzling, given the supposed benefits of the Colbert Bump. Does being on the Colbert Show really provide a bump—a critical leap that vaults a writer, or a politician to superstardom?

We know that Colbert isn’t a big fan of “facts,” and only needs his gut to tell him the Colbert Bump is real. At Juice, we let the data decide what’s real or not, so our apologies to Stephen for not taking his word for it. Intrigued, Juice Analytics set out to find out the truth. We gathered data about Amazon sales rank for 20 authors that appeared on his show in recent months. How did those ranks change in the days immediately before and after the authors’ appearance on the show?

Amazon Sales Rank of Colbert Guests

Hmmm, there might be something there but those sales ranks don’t tell us much. Fortunately for Stephen, some “eggheads” have worked out roughly how Amazon sales rank corresponds to actual book sales. We calculated the sales, and normalized the data so that the week prior to appearing on the Colbert Report was equal to 1.0. Here’s a picture.

Projected Sales of Colbert Guests

That looks like a bump, Conan. In fact, being on the Colbert Report increases sales by 10 times on average. That bump doesn’t last forever, but, let’s face it, what does?

We also wanted to know, what kinds of books are Colbert’s audience going crazy for? After all, Colbert is well known as a rock-solid conservative. He’s tight with the Bush Administration. Even though he debates a few liberal (“pinko”) authors now and then, most of his guests are writers of pop-intellectual studies of the Gladwellian persuasion.

Here are the authors and how we categorized them:

Pinkos: Jessica Valenti, Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters, Wesley K. Clark, A Time to Lead: For Duty, Honor and Country, Robert Shrum, No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner

‘Publicans: Tom DeLay, No Retreat, No Surrender: One American’s Fight

Pop Essayists: Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel B. Smith, Muses, Madmen, and Prophets: Rethinking the History, Science, and Meaning of Auditory Hallucination, Michael Gershon, The Second Brain: A Groundbreaking New Understanding of Nervous Disorders of the Stomach and Intestine, John J. Mearsheimer, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, Thomas L. Friedman, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, Frank J. Sulloway, Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives, Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Richard Preston, The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring, Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Bjorn Lomberg, Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming, Andrew Keen, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture, Michael Wallis, The Lincoln Highway: Coast to Coast from Times Square to the Golden Gate

Popular: Stephen Colbert, I Am America (And So Can You!), John Grisham, Playing For Pizza: A Novel, Tina Brown, The Diana Chronicles

How much of a bump did each of these groups receive?

Colbert Bump by Category of Guests

It’s a shock! Liberals and high-minded eggheads do better than popular or conservative books. I’m not sure if Colbert knows this, but his audience isn’t who he thinks they are.

Here are all the authors and their normalized sales around the time of their appearance on the Colbert Report.

Valenti
Clark
Shrum
DeLay
Gilbert
Smith
Gershon
Mearsheimer
Friedman
Sulloway
Diamond
Taleb
Preston
Gladwell
Lomberg
Keen
Wallis
Colbert
Grisham
Brown

This post was a collaborative effort of the entire Juice team. Pete Skomoroch concocted the idea, wrote copy, and found the study linking Amazon Sales Rank to actual sales. Zach data mined. David May whipped up elegant, instant visualizations. Sal Uryasev munged data.

Measure the Internet, Map the Internet

One area we’ve been paying particular attention to recently has been the internet traffic for different web site categories. Our friends over at comScore Inc. collect a wealth of information for “measurement of the myriad ways in which the Internet is used and the wide variety of activities that are occurring online.” Nice alliteration, guys.

Using some of the data they’ve allowed us to share with you, we had the bright idea to stuff it into our most favoritest charting type, the treemap. And what’s better than a chart? Answer: an interactive chart with a toggle button.

You’ll need to know a few things to really Juice the data:

  • The map is based on unique visitors by site for August 2007 and November 2007.
  • Red means a decrease in unique visitors over that three month time period and green means an increase. Black means there is no change.
  • You can click on the category headers to zoom into each category. Click on the category header again to zoom back out.
  • We provide two views of the data: the default shows just the top ten sites in each category. However, for nearly all categories, sites outside the top 10 account for over 50% of the visitation in the category (the exceptions were Search, Portals, and Auctions where the top players dominate traffic). A checkbox adds “All Others” and gives you a better sense of the size of each category. You can toggle these two views using the checkbox just below the map.
  • Due to some confidentiality restrictions that we’re under regarding the raw data, we couldn’t show other metrics that would really make this visualization sing—but I bet if you contacted comScore, they’d be glad to discuss with you.
  • A few tech notes. The treemap is adapted from Josh Tynjala’s capable open-source Flex Treemap component. Site images are provided by Amazon.com’s Alexa site thumbnail service.

So, without further ado, take a gander at our latest liberated data:

http://internetmap.juiceanalytics.com/

There’s so much information here, you won’t have any trouble drawing your own conclusions, but here are a few conversation starters:

  • Notice that there was a distinct increase in retail web visitors leading up to the holiday seasons.
  • Surprise! eBay owns auctions
  • Not too good of a showing for those online gambling sites; travel either.
  • Sports traffic is up… but not for the MLB.com site. Oh yeah, baseball season is over.

Enjoy.

Disclosure: comScore is a client of Juice Inc.