UPDATED WITH LATEST DISCUSSION – scroll down to see them
Stephen Few is a bit of a hero to those interested in data visualisation and his blog, Perceptual Edge is required reading for anyone interested in the field. Yesterday he published a cogent and fascinating piece about the latest version of Tableau, Tableau Veers from the Path. It’s great reading (although not so much for the Tableau guys) and it says a lot about the present state of infographics.
But one paragraph leapt out at me:
“ When did Tableau, which was originally developed for visual analysis, become a tool for creating impoverished infographics? Did they add this feature to satisfy one of their prominent UK customers, the Guardian? Whatever the reason, with the addition of word clouds, how many of Tableau’s customers will waste their time trying to analyze data using this ineffective form of display?“
This is interesting because as editor of the Guardian Datablog I can honestly say we don’t pay for Tableau services – we use Tableau Public sometimes as it’s a great tool. And we haven’t done a word cloud in the past two years.
It led to a conversation in the comments that I thought was interesting – and I’d love to know what you think too. This is how it stood today…
Are we right to showcase so many different types of graphics?
By Simon Rogers. March 14th, 2013 at 5:17 am
Really interesting piece marred only by a strange inaccuracy:
“Did they add this feature to satisfy one of their prominent UK customers, the Guardian? ”
We are not customers of Tableau – we’re more likely to use Datawrapper to produce bar charts, ironically. On the occasions where we do use Tableau, we use the public version.
Simon Rogers, editor, Guardian Datablog
By Stephen Few. March 14th, 2013 at 10:02 am
The Guardian provides Tableau with high-profile, public exposure. In so doing, you provide a powerful promotional platform for the software, which gives you influence. I cited the Guardian as an example of an organization that might tempt Tableau to add eye-catching but ineffective forms of visualization to the product because I’ve seen some of the worst examples of this in your publication, especially those created by David McCandless, who is particularly fond of bubbles.
By Simon Rogers. March 14th, 2013 at 10:20 am
Thanks for replying Stephen. As I said, I really like the piece and agree with 98% of it.
And, yes, we do showcase visualisations by lots of people, including – very occasionally – David McCandless. It’s what our Show and Tell section is for . And yes, sometimes they have bubbles and sometimes they don’t. I want the blog to show lots of visualisations by lots of people – some of which I love, some of which I don’t but are interesting and will spark a debate.
But if you did a survey of data visualisation types we use in posts that we put together here, you would find simple bar charts well in the lead.
And we are not customers of Tableau.
By Stephen Few. March 14th, 2013 at 10:45 am
The Guardian is in a position to promote effective data visualization by only showcasing infographics that are well designed. As an editor, do you not see this as an opportunity to lead the way?
If you use Tableau’s software, which is the case, then by my definition you are a Tableau customer. The fact that you use it for free doesn’t change this fact. I am also a Tableau customer in that I use the software, even though I’ve never paid for it. Whether you are a customer or not really doesn’t matter, does it? What matters is that the Guardian uses Tableau’s software, showcases its functionality, and as such exercises influence. Who knows to what degree the Guardian’s occasional use of bubbles, improperly designed treemaps, and other ineffective forms of display contributed to Tableau’s motivation for introducing some of the flashy stuff? What I invite you to recognize, however, is that by showcasing ineffective visualizations at times, you influence people in ways that potentially undermine their uses of data.
By Simon Rogers. March 14th, 2013 at 11:08 am
I absolutely agree about showcasing things that are well-designed, which we do. But I also want to democratise the process and encourage more people to feel that data is something for them, rather than an abstract property belonging to a few – as well as show new ways of visualising data when we can. Show & Tell is about separating off, to some extent, these visualisations and asking our readers what they think too. It is not a place for long strips of marketing ‘infographics’ – that visual disease of the web – but for a variety of ways of seeing the world.
And, if you have read the comments, you will see that our community are a discerning bunch who will vigorously debate the merits of infographics and the data itself. I am happy to provide a platform for as many interesting visualisations as possible. Some of them you will like and some you won’t but I think that’s OK. Comment sections of newspapers have allowed various views to permeate their pages for decades: it’s about allowing as many opinions as possible.
I hardly think you can then use us a reason for Tableau moving into word clouds.
Re: the whole ‘customer’ thing: the Oxford Dictionary defines ‘customer’ as “a person who buys goods or services from a shop or business”. We do not do buy services from Tableau, therefore we aren’t customers. We are sometimes users of the software, when it fits, yes. But not customers.
We demand precision in data visualisations; we should do the same with language too.
By Stephen Few. March 14th, 2013 at 11:33 am
I use the term “customer” more loosely than you do. As you know, if you looked up the term in the Oxford English Dictionary, which I just now did as well, my use of the term fits within the OED’s various definitions of the term. Regardless, my point was that you have influence, which is true.
I too work to democratize the use of data. In fact, this is my life’s work. How we differ, however, is that I think we should democratize data only in useful ways. Showcasing ineffective forms of display undermines this effort. There is enough confusion on the Web today regarding data visualization. The Guardian could join me in trying to promote best practices by vetting its graphical content more thoughtfully.
As a journalist, would you ever showcase ineffective uses of the English language in the Guardian? I doubt that you would. Just like words, graphics are a form of communication. As such, syntax of a sort applies–rules for using graphics to communicate clearly and accurately. As a graphics’ editor for a large news publication, you have an opportunity to help people improve their graphical skills through example. This is a wonderful opportunity. You could extend your use of it in more helpful ways.
By Simon Rogers. March 14th, 2013 at 5:37 pm
Thanks for your reply and for taking the time to engage. I don’t agree with the point about customers, but there you go.
I promise I’ll stop soon. But…
Just a few definitions and differentiations. Firstly, I am not graphics editor at the Guardian newspaper and I have never been. That falls presently to the brilliant Paul Scruton and previously to Michael Robinson. Both of whom know an awful lot more about graphical design than I do and are often fierce adherents of the kind of simple, clear graphics which you champion. There is nothing in the piece you have written with which they would disagree and I think you would be hard-pressed to find anything in the Guardian Graphics department’s work which does not fulfill those rules.
My job? I edit the Guardian Datablog, which is the home of a lot of the Guardian’s data journalism online. Our output on the blog comprises news stories, opinion pieces and data analyses. Often these are accompanied by charts and data visualisations which also follow your rules. At the moment we use Datawrapper a lot as it is a great way to produce simple clear charts at speed, as we are often working to tight deadlines. Most of the result of our work is in written articles, not data visualisations.
In terms of graphcs, I would say that 80% of the output of the Datablog is either our own simple charts or more ambitious graphics produced by the Guardian Graphics department working directly with our reporting team.
A small part of the output of the site is a ‘blog within a blog’, the Show and Tell section. This is where we publish interesting things from around the web. Are they all perfect? Probably not. But are they interesting or do they tell interesting stories? Yes, I think so.
Of course, that is my opinion. Yours or any of our readers’ may be different, and this is where the point about written articles comes in. I would not expect every article written by every writer for the Guardian to be in the same style or approach. I would expect them to be able to follow an argument, be literate and at least be accurate, however. And as long as data visualisations that are pitched to me follow those rules, will engender debate and discussion, then great. They may not all be to my taste, but that is what it is: my taste and opinion. I’m not sure there is an objective school of knowledge that says this is ‘right’ and that is ‘wrong’ – particularly as tastes and fashion move all the time.
Having said all that, if you would like to write or visualise data for us to show on the Datablog, I would be honoured. There is a real hunger out there for a glimpse of the knowledge you possess. Let’s share that.
By Stephen Few. March 15th, 2013 at 9:21 am
As the editor of the Datablog, you have an opportunity to vet the content. I believe that it is in the Datablog that I’ve found the Guardian’s examples of ineffective data visualization that I referred to previously, such as McCandless’ work. I’ve used examples from you Datablog in lectures to illustrate how not to visualize data. These examples do not meet your journalistic requirement that the content “follow an argument, be literate and at least be accurate.” McCandless’ Billion Pound-O-Gram, which appeared in the Guardian, is an example of this.
There actually is “an objective school of knowledge that says this is ‘right’ and that is ‘wrong.’” It is based on many years of research into the way graphics are perceived and how they can assist or impede cognition. Many books, such as mine (also Tufte, Robbins, Ware, Cairo, Cleveland, etc.) explain the findings of this research in the form of data visualization best practices. Although style and fashion certainly exist in data visualization, this isn’t what I’m talking about. I’m referring to perception and cognition, and how graphics can be designed to work effectively for humans. Are you familiar with this body of research? If not, I invite you to become familiar with it and to let this body of knowledge help you vet the content of the Datablog in ways that will better showcase effective data visualization practices. In so doing, you will join in the effort to usher in a true Information age, rather than the dysfunctional data age in which we currently live.