Since this blog in November, I’ve given my talk on infovis vs. statistical graphics about five times: once in person (at the visualization meetup in NYC, a blog away from Num Pang!) and the rest via telephone conferencing or skype. The live presentation was best, but the remote talks have been improving, and I’m looking forward to doing more of these in the future to save time and reduce pollution.
Now that I’ve got it working well (mostly by cutting lots of words on the slides), my next step will be to improve the interactive experience. At the very least, I need to allocate time after the talk for discussion. People usually don’t ask a lot of questions when I speak, so maybe the best strategy is to allow a half hour following the talk for people to speak with me individually. It could be set up so that I’m talking with one person but the others who are hanging out could hear the conversation too.
Anyway, one of the times I gave the talk, a new idea came out: One thing that people like about infovis is the puzzle-solving aspect. For example, when someone sees that horrible map with the plane crashes (see page 23 of the presentation), there is a mini-joy of discovery at noticing–Hey, that’s Russia! Hey, that’s India! Etc. From our perspective as statisticians, it’s a cheap thrill: the reader is wasting brainpower to discover the obvious. But I think most people like it. In this way, an attractive data visualization is functioning like a Chris Rock routine, when he says something that we all know, but he says it in such a fresh new way that we find it appealing.
Conversely, in statistical graphics we use a boring display so that anything unexpected will stand out. It’s a completely different perspective. I’m not saying that statisticians are better than infovis people, just that we strive for different effects.
Another example are those maps that distort the sizes of states or countries to be proportional to population. Everybody loves these “cartograms,” but I hate ’em. Why? Because the #1 thing these maps convey is that some states on the east coast have high population density and that nobody lives in Wyoming. People loooove to see these wacky maps and discover these facts. It’s like being on vacation in some far-off place and running into Aunt Louise at the grocery store. The shock of the familiar.
(I’m not opposed to all such maps. In particular, I like the New York Times maps that show congressional and electoral college results within stylized states that include congressional districts as little squares. These maps do the job by focusing attention on the results, not on the cool processes used to create the distortions.)