Data viz comes to Errol Street

That sounds a little unfair. It’s not that the Royal Statistical Society is inimical to visualization, just that they don’t keep an eye on it in the way that a certain zone of the blogosphere does. My own Stat Comp committee’s session on visualization at the conference in Newcastle last month was the most overcrowded room of the whole four days. We brought in double the chairs and still people stood out into the corridor and sat on the floor, which was pleasing but not all that surprising.

Last Thursday they held a joint meeting with the Association for Survey Computing on data viz with speakers from the Guardian Digital Agency and the Office for National Statistics. There were a lot of people in the room, and apparently a waiting list for cancellations to attend.

The speakers from Guardian Digital described a process comprising data – story – chart – design, with quite a long time spent getting the data right and looking for the potential stories. (You have to remember, these guys typically start with an interesting dataset gathered for its own merits, not a study with a pre-specified hypothesis.) If a barrier is encountered at any point, you have to start again to ensure integrity.

They cited the case of Ivan Cash’s infographic of infographics, which excels in all aspects except the data, being based on a small number of cases from a single website. The lack of data integrity makes the whole thing collapse. Not that it was ever intended as more than a bit of fun.

Alan Smith from the ONS had a bunch of interactive graphics to share, some already published, some new. My favourite was the internal migration map of the UK, which reduces an intractable (for human brains) 350×350 transition matrix to a clickable map showing where people move home from and to.

Two good questions from the audience which I paraphrase:

Q: Where do your data viz people sit within the organisation to achieve this level of integration and output?
A: Part of methodology, so we are seen as working on best practice; early discussion saw some managers suggesting we fall under the IT department because we would be doing things with computers [cue widespread mirth].

Q: Will there still be a future for static images, printed or otherwise,  or will everything have to be interactive?
A: Static images remain very important. We can’t expect all information to be absorbed online and through no other medium, and also a lot of animations are really just the precursor to a static image that can be considered in depth [e.g. Every Drone Strike]. But it is quite simple to translate a static image into a clickable one for online consumption using some of the newer JavaScript libraries like D3. The idea of Data Driven Documents should appeal to statisticians. The RSS Centre for Statistical Education have used interactive graphics as a stimulus to learning about statistical thinking, although most interest from academics has come from web design / computer science departments, not statisticians. This should act as a wake-up call to statisticians to get involved and acquire these new skills.
[My emphasis]


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