This story about the Public Accounts Committee‘s call for public data to be made easier to use sent me to two of my favourite reference books, Edward Tufte’s [amazon_link id=”0961392142″ target=”_blank” ]The Visual Display of Quantitative Information[/amazon_link] and Howard Wainer’s [amazon_link id=”0691134057″ target=”_blank” ]Graphic Discovery: A Trout in the Milk and Other Visual Adventures[/amazon_link]. There is an apt Tufte quotation: “Good information design is clear thinking made visible, while bad design is stupidity in action.” This is just as true of words: if you don’t think clearly, you can’t write clearly. Writing that is not clear might not reflect a lack of authorial understanding, but I tend to take it as a serious possibility.
[amazon_image id=”0691134057″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Graphic Discovery: A Trout in the Milk and Other Visual Adventures[/amazon_image]
When it comes to data and the presentation of statistical analyses, what the PAC says is obviously correct in a way: true transparency involves structuring data, not sending it out in a raw torrent. On the other hand, structuring data requires a lot of time and effort, and public agencies have neither the resource nor necessarily the expertise. So beyond a certain point it is surely fine to expect somebody else to make sense of the data and present it appropriately.
However, there is surely still a gap in the market for very easy to use (and affordable) software to handle data and present it flexibly. Part of the tyranny of Powerpoint, against which Tufte rails so powerfully, is the rigidity of the graphing tools. I know there are lots of other visualisation tools available and The Guardian for one has done terrific work educating us about this, but that’s the challenge – there really are lots. Here’s another list and another of data visualization tools and another. Here’s Tableau’s free software. Lots of it out there. But nothing has become the standard to replace Powerpoint when you’re in a hurry. This is the path dependency/first mover effect in action. OK, one has to invest the time in learning new tools, but I haven’t yet found one to settle on, and don’t want to learn fifteen. No doubt somebody will tell me what an idiot I am for not having discovered the answer to my problem – I hope so!
[amazon_image id=”0961392142″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Visual Display of Quantitative Information[/amazon_image]