Data visualization: Beneficial but perilous

Published August 15, 2013   |   
Nancy Gohring

There’s something about data visualizations that make people trust them more than they should.

Just ask engineer and data scientist Pete Warden. He created and published a data visualization that used public Facebook profiles to draw conclusions about regionalism in the U.S. and was surprised at its reception.

“A New York Times columnist used it as evidence that the U.S. was perilously divided,” he wrote recently in a blog post about his data visualization, first published a couple years ago. “White supremacists dug into the tool to show that Juan was more popular than John in Texan border towns, and so the country was on the verge of being swamped by Hispanics.”

That’s not exactly what he’d planned. His visualization wasn’t meant to be regarded as repeatable scientific research of the kind that’s been peer reviewed, he said.

He’s not alone in creating a data visualization that’s been given more credit than it should. “There is an element of ‘wow, it’s so professionally presented that it must be true,'” said Jim Bell, chief marketing officer for Jaspersoft.

And yet, more and more people, including those with little or no training in data analysis, are creating such visualizations. That’s due to the proliferation of tools, some of them web-based, that make it very easy to build data visualizations.

It didn’t used to be that way. Traditionally, companies might spend six months or longer integrating a business intelligence product and then hire a staff of people to make charts for people in the company, said Dave Fowler, founder and CEO of Chartio, a cloud-based data visualization service. Those people would have to have “an odd combination of knowing how to run these big BI suites of software, knowing how to move big data sets around … and then also doing charting visualization,” he said.

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