'You can't digitize your gut,' but good visualizations make sense of data - Technical.ly DC

Software Development

Nov. 26, 2014 7:45 am

‘You can’t digitize your gut,’ but good visualizations make sense of data

Government has a lot of data, but without good visualizations it's easy for all that information to go to waste. Software firm Tableau hosted a conversation about best practices and methods on doing it better.
This data visualization from NPR shows the path of destruction from a tornado in Okalahoma in May 2013.

This data visualization from NPR shows the path of destruction from a tornado in Okalahoma in May 2013.

(Screenshot via NPR's Oklahoma Tornado Damage web app)

Massive amounts of data don’t amount to much unless it is properly analyzed and visualized. If you can’t make sense of what you got, it doesn’t matter if you have it. That’s why the dominant data gathering industry — government — is starting to play around with different types of software to better do just that.

A room full of government sector employees convened at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center last week for what amounted to a data viz-focused TED Talk organized by Tableau, a software company based in Seattle.

Keynote speaker Jonathan Schwabish, a researcher at the Urban Institute, gave a visually compelling presentation for why presentation has become key to understanding data.

It also matters to present a compelling package to the audience. “Are you trying to get them McDonald’s or trying to take them out to a nice dinner?” he said.

Here is a tool and a strategy Schwabish recommended:

  • The Graphic Continuum, a sort of table of elements for the infinite ways you can present your data — via a graph, map, chart, nested bubbles or violin.
  • Visualization Mapping: Form and Function, which suggests that on the plane of function to form, you’d rather be on the exploratory/interactive than on the explanatory/static quadrant. (Yeah, you gotta see it.)

Another presentation highlighted how much data viz can assist agencies during emergencies.

Take, for example, the May 2013 tornado in Moore, Oklahoma: analyzing a map of damaged houses can indicate where to direct limited resources.

“You can’t digitize your gut,” said Teri Caswell, a senior associate at Hassett Willis. But software under the right hands can help immensely. “D.C. needs to understand what it doesn’t know,” she said.

Here are a couple examples of Tableau workbooks from by Kyle Pipkins, a Hassett Willis associate.

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