Data visualization and the art of simplicity

Data visualization and the art of simplicity

I have quite a bit in common with John Webster, VP Global Product Marketing at Basware. We both grew up in the North West of England, we’re both P2P professionals and, curiously, we both have exactly the same book on our coffee tables at home.

Purchasing Insight logoThere is a quote often attributed, wrongly, to Albert Einstein “If you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it well enough”. It’s attributed to Richard Feynman too and it may well be a derivative of something Rutherford said: “It should be possible to explain the laws of physics to a barmaid”*. All fine physicists and all unanimous that simplicity is key to both understanding and explaining.

Facts are Sacred by Simon Rogers, is the perfect coffee table book for data visualization nerds or indeed anyone looking for inspiration on how to distill complex matters into something simple. It is a collection of stunning and informative data visualizations that look behind the headlines and soundbites of the news coverage we’re bombarded with to explain – in simple terms – what is going on in the world.

For example, did you know that the number of KFC outlets in China has grown from 800 in 2002 to 3,701 in 2011? Or that California has more gun crime that any other US State? Or that the cost of bringing up a child in the UK is £218,024? You are unlikely ever to need these facts, indeed, if you remember by tomorrow I’d be surprised but when brought to life using graphical visualizations, they take on a new meaning – because they can be put into perspective. The snapshot of China infographic illustrates a whole range of economic and social metrics to illustrate something quite complex and detailed – the enormous change that has happened in China over the last decade. The gun crime heat map show how statistics can be manipulated to say anything you want. California may have more gun crime that any other state but when measured per head of population, it is a relatively safe place. The representation of mundane data into a graphic can turn data into something new. It allows valuable insights to be developed to help understanding and indeed helps us make better decisions.

In the world of P2P, we are dealing with data all the time. We, as professional, have become experts in manipulating data to support recommendations and decisions. We’re a generation of data addicts. But we are, generally, completely crap at data visualization and I have a theory about why that is. Just as Einstein, Feynman or Rutherford said, we can’t explain it simply because we don’t understand it well enough. There’s too much data and we haven’t got the time or to be frank, the skills. Being able to drive a spreadsheet doesn’t make us statisticians. We need to spend more time with the data so that we can understand and interpret it better. We need to stop kidding ourselves that we know what we’re doing and employ experts who are good at this sort of stuff and we need our business tools to be more supportive in terms of the way reports are presented to us.

Which brings me back to John Webster from Basware and our shared coffee table reading tastes. It’s because John and I share an interest in data visualization that I was enthusiastic to see Basware’s new analytics suite, launched tomorrow, which employs data visualization techniques. I saw it last week and I wasn’t disappointed.

* I spent most of my University years trying to explain the laws of physics to a barmaid. I’ve now been married to her for 26 years and I’m still trying to explain them.

Pete Loughlin can be found on twitter @peteloughlin

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