Monday, October 19, 2009

Is this really telling me something?

I was recently going through the October issue of Discover and tucked away in the back between pages of lame ads is the "September's What is This?" on page 75. It is a visualization of the Bible Chris Harrison at Carnegie Mellon that uses colored arcs to show references between the books of the Bible. It also throws in length in verses for the chapters of the books along the bottom, a secondary viz of sorts.

This is all fine and dandy but I have to ask: What is This? *How appropriate eh? nudge nudge* To be fair, Chris makes it clear that he put together this viz to be "something more beautiful than functional." I'll give him this because a nice rainbow pattern emerges due to the arcs being colored based on distance of the reference. But he then goes on to say "At the same time, we wanted something that honored and revealed the complexity of the data at every level –- as one leans in, smaller details should become visible."

This leads into something I've noticed with visualization in general: in the end all these fancy new ways of representing data aren't really helping me draw any conclusions. The golden oldies are much more effective at the actual goal of visualization: "Visualization is any technique for creating images, diagrams, or animations to communicate a message" (from Wikipedia).

It may be my untrained eye, but this graph is not revealing anything about the complexity of the data. Is it simply that there is a fairly even distribution of long and short arcs? Anyone familiar with the Bible could probably tell you that. What else is going on here to make it worthy of being in Discover? I'm not trying to pick on Chris here, he's just a high profile example of how I mostly feel about the "making graphs" part of the field. Especially while in grad school, I came across many projects that I simply looked at and said "So?"

Just to end on a positive note I think Chris's website design rocks.