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Visualization old school

Recently, we got a chance to visit with John West, a senior fellow at the Department of Defense's High Performance Computer Modernization Program. This is the program that acquires supercomputers on behalf of the Defense Department. One of the topics of discussion was visualization. Once the big iron crunches all this data, how can it be prepared so it can be readily understood by us mortals?

Proper visualization can make a huge difference. West said he had an example he sometimes gives in talks that shows what profound difference the technique can make. The first slide is a set of numbers. By themselves, they don't seem to infer any particular meaning. But then, in the second slide, he shows a picture of a circle. He then explains that the numbers in the previous slide are coordinates for drawing this circle.

In other words, visualization can make immediate sense of an otherwise complex body of information. When done correct, of course.

When it comes to visualization, we've long admired the work of Edward Tufte. So we were excited when we saw thatNew York magazine recently profiled the man.

Tufte has been amazingly successful at showing the true power of visualization, though he doesn't work in computer visualization. Rather, he shows how a well-thought out graphic or drawing can convey a rich set of information. At its best, an illustration is a seamless integration of words and images.

A lot of people have picked up on his ideas, as New York pointed out. When the 64 year old Tufte tours the lecture circuit, tickets are $380 a pop. His mostly sold-out audiences consist of, according to the magazine, mostly males, the kind of folks who are "wearing expensive rimless eyeglasses. Many are Web designers, creative directors, art directors, editors, architects." His books have reportedly sold over 1.4 million copies.

In Tufte's view, the best statistical graphic ever made was done by Charles Joseph Minard. In devastating and immediate simplicity, it showed the losses Napoleon's army suffered during its invasion of Russian campaign in 1812. A thick line shows how many soldiers started out, and the thin line returning to the point of origin showed how few returned. The New York article explained that 422,000 people left Poland, but only 10,000 returned. The graphic, however, showed what a long hard march that mission truly was.

And just as good illustration enlighten, bad one confuse. And Tufte railed against "chartjunk," unnecessary embellishments and the misleading simplicity of PowerPoint slides in general. He has documented how "confusing medical charts can lead to mistakes in treatment and how corporate reports that highlight years of rising revenue without adjusting for inflation can mislead investors," according to another profile in Stanford magazine. New York magazine even suggested that a misleading PowerPoint slide may have led to the NASA Columbia disaster.

And so while Tufte doesn't work in the realm of computer visualization, those who do might pick up an idea or two from this master.

Posted by Joab Jackson on Jun 29, 2007 at 9:39 AM


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