What do we do this VIS thing for? Towards a data visualization ethos.

I often find myself asking: “What do we do this Data Visualization thing for?”. Of course I do it mostly because it’s fun, and I bet it’s the same for you. Yet, is there a way we can find some deeper meaning in it? Are there some higher level purposes we can identify? Meaning often comes in relation to impact one can have on other people’s lives, so here is a tentative list off the top of my head of how vis can impact people’s lives (feel free to add yours in the comments below).

1) To help scientists and researchers do great things with data.

This is probably the most important for me. Clearly influenced by the way I work. I often pair up with domain experts and help them make sense of complex data through visualization. My reasoning goes like this: if I provide tools for scientists to reason about complex issues I may end up playing a role for important discoveries. I have done work with biologists and doctors who study cancers, diabetes, and other nasty diseases. I have done work with development agencies who try to eradicate poverty in the world. I have done work with climate scientists who try to understand how climate evolve. Isn’t that great? Working with scientists is hard but also deeply satisfying. When you see that spark in their eyes and. I urge everyone to try. That’s a great way of doing vis.

2) To increase people awareness and understanding of complex issues that matter.

Here we are clearly in the data journalism realm, but not exclusively, not necessarily. Think about educating students in school, or writing a book full of charts, or publishing a paper. With visualization we can increase people’s knowledge, isn’t that fantastic? Maybe some of them will make some important decisions for life: choose a career path, become an activist, change school, become a doctors, who knows? This power of course comes with a lot of responsibility but we have the power to change people’s life through information communication. We can have an immediate effect.

3) To provide pleasurable experiences.

Ok, let me tell you that. People like visualization because it’s beautiful. Maybe not only because of that, but beauty plays a major role and we should celebrate it. What is life without beauty after all? Data visualization has an artistic side, both when the main purpose of the designer is art or something else. It is similar to architecture I guess: a great new building or bridge can be a great pleasure to watch even if its goal is mainly functional. As creators of visuals people use or consume we have the opportunity to provoke emotions and pleasure. The emotion of understanding on a visceral level how much dedication and experience is embedded in a beautiful artifact. The emotion of understanding that behind data there may be people’s lives and for that reason to find a new way to deeply connect with them. Art should be celebrated more. It goes directly to people’s heart when done well.

4) To increase data literacy.

And of course we can also teach people how to think with data, so that they now have a meta-skill! Teaching visualization to people is deeply satisfying and has such a direct impact on their life. My students are so excited when they take my course. I like to think that this is because of me but it’s mostly because the subject is beautiful and empowering. And how about teaching kids in school? I am waiting for that to happen.

And now it’s your turn. How do you find meaning in visualization?

4 thoughts on “What do we do this VIS thing for? Towards a data visualization ethos.

  1. Hendrik Strobelt

    I think by increasing the throughput between machine and human you enable thinking about problems that we where not capable to think about before. Visualization seems therefore to be the mediator between data and brain.

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