Can visualization influence people? I mean can we prove it?

I just came back from a wonderful journey and experience. I was kindly invited by the IDRC (International Development Research Center) in Ottawa to give a talk about data visualization. The IDRC is a Canadian organization that funds research projects in developing countries for development purposes (don’t say humanitarian, I’ve learned the hard way it’s a different issue). Think climate change, health and medicine, agriculture, food, etc.

I will probably say more about my experience there and all the inspiring thoughts it generated in later posts, but here I want to focus on one.

My talk was very much focussed on the role of information visualization as a tool for your mind. A tool able to make abstract data visible so that you can use the marvelous capabilities of your eyes and cognition to understand what data contains. In a few words, I sold interactive visualization as a tool for making sense of data, learning new facts out of it and, hopefully, make discoveries.

I think I did a good job: they could follow what I was saying and I could catch some of them nodding while I was speaking. Usually this is a good sign. Everyone seemed to be happy with it. Then I finished my talk and the usual session with questions started. I had a couple of interesting good questions and then the one that is at the origin of this post.

Not exactly the right words used by the person at the microphone but well along these lines:

Ok, you said that visualization is good for this and that. Fine. But what we really need here is to make sure we can influence the decision makers (read politicians) by showing them the impact of our research. Since you are from research can you tell us if there are any studies showing visualization can influence decision makers?

My answer:

Mmm … oooh … mmm” (add lot of sweat in the meantime) “mmm … mmm”. “No. As far as I know there are no such studies.

How frustrating was it?! It was certainly very frustrating for me. But not because I could not answer to a question, I have big shoulders, but more because I felt we, as a community, have totally neglected simple questions with an enormous impact.

Now, it is totally possible that I am ignorant and that in fact these studies do exist. And if this is the case please let me know. Do you know of any studies that show how visualization can influence decision makers?

But if these studies are not yet there, I feel a bit miserable and I think we have to start researching these ideas.

Visualization as a communication vs. analysis device

But there is a more general issue here to consider. We people in research are very much into “selling” visualization as an analysis device. We love to say it helps sense making and that the holy grail is to help people make new discoveries. Fine. While I think this is true and laudable, even though a bit over-emphasized, I don’t understand why we have completely neglected the role of visualization as a communication tool.

It’s really surprising to me because if I have to compare what we do in research labs to what people out of labs do, there is a disproportion between the need of communicating with visualization and the amount of research we devoted to this issue. Frankly, I don’t know why. Maybe because communication is less fancy than discovery? Maybe because we tend to consider all those visualizations on the web and magazines just trivial stuff? I don’t know. But I know what I had in mind before this question was asked and something changed in my mind. I think our role as researchers is also to give answers to this type of questions.

What do you think? Did I miss the point? Are there hundreds of studies out there I don’t know yet? Or maybe I am too much concerned and it’s not that important after all? I’d love to know it.

P.S. You might have noticed my long break from posting in FILWD. This was due to heavy writing for the visweek deadline and my talk in Canada. Now I am back and I am ready to give even more than before. I hope you are still there waiting for my posts. If this is the case, thank you!