Ah, but maybe it was there before and it just took a new perspective.
If you think you’ve got a pretty accurate worldview, watch this TedTalk and we’ll see. In 2007, Hans Rosling showed us that in a world filled with increasing amounts of data, we desperately needed to visualize that data in a new way.
As a pre-test, Rosling asked the following set of questions to a group of Swedish undergradute students who were studying global health:
Which country has the highest child mortality…
Sri Lanka or Turkey?
Poland or South Korea?
Malaysia or Russia?
Pakistan or Vietnam?
Thailand or South Africa?
If you’re still feeling pretty confident, then that’s great – I make it a habit to read the local and world news almost daily and felt like I had to make some second guesses, but didn’t feel like I’d be too far off. What’s more, Rosling reveals that each pair of countries was deliberately chosen so that one country would in reality have twice the child mortality rate of the other. Shouldn’t be that hard then.
I was right for
5 2 out of the 5 questions, and the Swedish students were just about as accurate. How come we were so wrong, and how does data visualization come into play? First go make yourself a nice cup of tea, then come back to watch Rosling’s TedTalk, see how well you scored and among other things, see how just profoundly the Internet has impacted our world.
Without spoiling the video (if you’re still reading this and you haven’t watched the TedTalk, go watch it! I’ll wait, it’s okay), what strikes me most is that much of the data presented was not new in any kind of raw sense. These changes throughout the world haven’t happened overnight, yet it took a new kind of data visualization – Rosling used Gapminder – to make these changes easy to notice and understand.
In what turned out to be an at-once fitting and ironic search, I attempted to find a Creative Commons licensed image on Flickr to accompany this article and met with little success. (Thank you, Tony, for finding an image!) Type in ‘data’ and you get generic tech pictures, creepy doll faces and Lieutenant Commander Data from Star Trek. Type in ‘data visualization’ and you get a plethora of complicated circles, rectangles and spikes. ‘Statistics graphics’ yields slightly better results, yet I became very aware that the way we typically represent data in charts and diagrams has not changed much over the years. Rosling’s TedTalk helped me reflect that maybe it really is time for us to upgrade the way we visually represent data. If I was feeling pretty confident about my answers to those five questions, how many other situations are there where my perspective is so skewed, and what would it take to see something new?
The term ‘big data’ is becoming a more prevalent topic in computer science as we collect more and more information about ourselves and the world around us. Since Rosling gave his talk in 2007, it has become even more necessary for people to create news tools that help us better understand all of this information and decide how to react to its implications. Something tells me that pie charts and scatter plots aren’t always going to cut it anymore.