Amanda Cox of the New York Times on the power of data visualization

Writing in the Harvard Business Review blog, Scott Berinato has interviewed top data visualizer Amanda Cox from the New York Times. Thanks to Nathan Yau for spotting this and posting it on Flowingdata.

Cox raises a couple of interesting points for me, points that are rarely said. Firstly, that statistics graduates leave university with almost no skills in creative problem solving and computing:

I come from a statistics background, and I’m finding statistics students’ portfolios are crazy weak compared to the computer science students, even though they’re playing with the same problems. I think it’s because comp sci students are encouraged to play, whereas stats majors it’s, “here’s your rule book, now make things.” I don’t think that’s the good model for making better visualization.

I think that’s absolutely true. I know because I am a stats (via maths) graduate myself, and everything I know about programming and visualization is self-taught in recent years. I mean no disrespect to my former teachers, it’s just that you can’t cover everything in the time available and the accepted norm is to teach the rule book. For the great majority of my fellow students, that’s exactly what they wanted: practical data analysis. But if you want to be able to do cutting-edge analyses, or create cutting-edge visualizations, you need different skills which are all about playing around with computers.

Secondly, that the very recent acceleration in the evolution of online interactive visualizations is in no small part down to the sharing of the nuts and bolts of how they are made. This is in part through collaborative sites like Github, but also importantly because JavaScript-based websites have everything up front: you can save the HTML and .js files containing the data and the instructions to visualize it, then examine and learn from them at your own leisure. 

Then some of the more tech competent people starting using D3 javascript and now we’re having fun with data again. In some ways it feels of the web in the way that the Flash stuff never did. Now, when someone does something interesting, how they did it is really just sitting out there on the Internet, so you get this great sharing and building off of each other.

In fact, I’m working on a little example to post here soon, on how you can access the data behind such a visualization and play around with it to make your own version.

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