When data visualisation comes home to roost

I was excited when I first found out about Berg London’s school data visualisation project several months ago, and now it’s gone live as Schooloscope. Having taken a look, I find myself worried about it, and I’ll tell you why.

Here’s the Schoolscoped snapshot of the school where my wife works:

Schooloscope screenshot

Now, what this page does is cleverly synthesise down some really complex data into five data points, some context and a conclusion. It’s a snapshot based on historic data (in this case, data from 2007 and 2009). But what it does is visualise the data. It does not visualise the school.

And this, I’m beginning to realise, is my problem with data visualisation. It does a great job of presented chunks of information, but it also lulls us into a sense of security. We feel that we know something we didn’t know before (and this knowing is occupied by a little thrill at how easy the learning was).

When I worked as a journalist, I was always aware of the chain of knowledge around a particular story. The people involved knew more than me; I knew more than the reader (because of the stuff I couldn’t stand up or wasn’t allowed to print); and the reader knew the least of all. On top of that, I was forced to press down an issue into a set word count, sometimes with as few as 200 words.

In other words, what I presented to the reader wasn’t the essence of the truth. It was more an avatar for the truth, and often a pretty lo-res avatar at that. It helped understanding. But it did not provide complete understanding.

And, of course, that is largely fine. None of us has the time or the memory capacity to hold the truth of everything in our heads. That would make us God. But, occasionally, data visualisation makes us feel like God. We feel, after only a few moments of reflection, that we get it. That was how I felt, for instance, when I looked at the visualisation of the Beatles’ music. But, let’s be honest – that visualisation no more described the reality of music composition than this post describes the reality of consciousness.

So back to this particular case. And, in this case, I do know some of the particulars, and they are not reflected in that piece of visualisation. I’m not saying the visualisation is wrong. I’m saying it presents a simplified view of a complicated world. And sometimes simplification enhances understanding, but we should always be aware of the limits of simplification. When we watch a ted.com video, or read a post on a science blog, or listen to an In Our Time podcast, we are becoming more aware, but we are not necessarily becoming more knowledgeable or, more importantly, more wise. Wisdom comes from reflection and the slow, lengthy consumption of the facts. You just don’t get that from a visualisation. You get something (indeed, quite a lot). But you don’t get that.

PS: I’m quite aware of the stench of sour grapes around this post. There’s no easy way of saying “but, but, but!” without sounding like you’re defending your own professional patch and telling everyone else “back off, you just don’t understand what we’re doing here.” I’m obviously a major proponent of public data, and this is not a warning “not to visualise”. It’s more a plea: “seek to understand.”

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