In the age of Big Data, folks are often overwhelmed by the volume of data sources, charts, and graphs thrown at them every day. Enter data visualization – the ability to condense, analyze, and share data that makes an impact. Throughout history, data visualization has been used to document everything from health crises to the effect of colors on mood.

But what exactly does data visualization do and how can you leverage it to grow your business? Are data visualization and infographics the same thing? Read on to learn more, plus discover some fascinating examples.

Galileo’s sun spot map – one of the earliest known representations of data visualization

Galileo’s sun spot map – one of the earliest known representations of data visualization

What Exactly Does Data Visualization Do?

At its core, data visualization is a visual representation of data – statistics made more understandable at-a-glance. You could write entire paragraphs about the interconnectedness of people and six degrees of separation, or you could illustrate it graphically, as Facebook did in 2012 by charting “Friendship”.

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As you’ll see, rather than talk about the billions of friendships around the world, Facebook illustrates it by using meaningful data in a way that we can quickly understand. That’s data visualization, in a nutshell.

How are Businesses and Organizations Using Data Visualization?

Data visualization doesn’t just revolve around the creation of these types of graphics, but also insightful interpretation. It comes down to conveying information. It’s hard to believe but even the LAPD is using data visualization to predict where crime will occur.

Many designers create beautiful, sophisticated designs that are stunning to admire, but fail to capture the main idea and present it in a way that others can easily grasp. For example, how well can you follow this chart on the evolution of pop and rock music?

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Sure, there are lots of names and numbers, and you may be able to understand timeframes and specific influences, but is this type of chart the best way to convey that kind of information? We asked ourselves this very question and then came across this interactive gem that answered it for us:

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And of course, when talking about visualizing data, we inevitably come to the question —

What’s the Difference Between Data Visualization and Infographics?

Generally, infographics display information that can’t always be quantified (i.e. X% of people did Y). Infographics often tell a scrolling story, by providing tidbits of data in a way that supports a specific idea or strategy. Data visualization charts, on the other hand, often use machine language to illustrate their points, since the numbers are far too large to artistically showcase in a way that’s easy for people to “wrap their heads around”.

But just because they’re computer generated doesn’t make them any less powerful or personal. Both types of images portray the same sorts of information, but rather than sell you on a particular opinion or perspective, data visualizations allow you to walk away more informed, and create your own point of view. In fact, data visualization has been used to do everything from improve investor relations, as in the case of Coca-Cola, to a more light-hearted consumer-centered communication, like the Battle Royale face-off between FedEx and UPS:

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It’s worth noting that data visualizations and infographics are similar in many ways as well. For instance, both of them can be interactive, as shown in a visualization created by the New York Times on what different age groups do with their time.

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What looks like a giant pit of information has been turned into a breakdown by gender, race, age group, education, and family background to determine how different groups spent their time. What’s more, the chart is fully interactive. So if you wanted to see the data from Hispanics around 40-55 years of age with a bachelor’s degree and two children, you could just click a few buttons and have the computer crunch the numbers.

Why Not Just Use Regular Charts?

Data visualization proponents tend to vilify “old fashioned” charts – particularly pie charts. The reasons for this are based on facts though, as the 3D representation of a pie isn’t the best way to present specific details. Small but significant changes such as the rotation of the pie and even the angle of the slice could accidentally provide false information. It’s not entirely accurate, and could lead viewers to form the wrong conclusion.

In these cases, it’s better to let the machine take over and display the information in a more coherent, understandable, and accurate way. What’s more, our brains understand and recognize lines (bar charts) much better than they understand and recognize angles. So it’s just about impossible for us to make meaningful decisions when shown slices of a pie, particularly those with cool 3D effects.

What Are Your Thoughts?

Do you feel that data visualization will be making more of an impact on the way we do business or is it simply a glorified infographic? Do you use data visualization in your company? How has it impacted your bottom line? Share your thoughts and examples with us @dtelepathy!

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