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The Brain…. Lovely infographic shared by @finiteattention on Twitter.
Information Is Beautiful by David McCandless (via mkandlez)
Self-portrait as phrenology illustration (via obscure allusion)
Como se forma a memÃ³ria (via thiagolyra)
“A good sketch is better than a long speech…” — a quote oftenattributed to Napoleon Bonaparte
The ability to visualize the implications of data is as old as humanity itself. Yet due to the vast quantities, sources, and sinks of data being pumped around our global economy at an ever increasing rate, the need for superior visualization is great and growing. To give dimension to the size of the challenge, the EMC reports that the “digital universe” added 487 exabytes — or 487 billion gigabytes — in 2008. They project that in 2012, we will add five times as much digital information as we did last year.
I believe that we will naturally migrate toward superior visualizations to cope with this information ocean. Since the days of the cave paintings, graphic depiction has always been an integral part of how people think, communicate, and make sense of the world. In the modern world, new information systems are at the heart of all management processes and organizational activities.
About ten years ago, I vividly remember visiting the Cabinet War Rooms in the basement of Whitehall, where Churchill had his war room during WW II. The desks were full of phones, and the walls covered with maps and information about troop levels and movements. These used color coded pieces of string to help Churchill’s team easily understand what was happening:
On the one hand, I was struck by how primitive their information environment was only sixty years ago. But on the other, I found it reassuring to see how similar their approach was to war fighting today. The mode, quality and speed of data capture has changed greatly from the 1940s, but the paradigm for visualization of the terrain, forces, and strategy are almost identical to those of WWII. So, the good news is that even in a world of information surplus, we can draw upon deep human habits on how to visualize information to make sense of a dynamic reality.
What has changed since Churchill was chomping on his favorite cigars? The quality, timeliness, granularity, and volume of data has increased greatly. Also, with the ever improving assistance of Moore’s Law, we have the power to recombine and analyze the vast stream of information at a price point that makes even very advanced visualization techniques within the reach of any business.
In my work with clients, I’ve seen three primary benefits of superior graphic representation:
- Great visualizations are efficient — they let people look at vast quantities of data quickly.
- Visualizations can help an analyst or a group achieve more insight into the nature of a problem and discover new understanding.
- A great visualization can help create a shared view of a situation and align folks on needed actions.
Below is an example of a data visualization used by one of our property casualty insurance clients that takes information from Google Earth and overlays flood plain data onto an arial photo of their client’s commercial building:
One can clearly see that a big portion of the building complex framed in the top of the picture lies within the flood plain. This picture makes it much easier for the insurance sales person to show the company why they may be paying a higher premium. It also allows for clearer internal dialog between the salesperson and the underwriter, speeding communication and collaboration.
In addition to arranging the information to create shared understanding, visualization gives us the ability to combine data in order to create new insight — quickly and clearly. Wired has a wonderful graphic showing the seven deadly sins by state across the USA. As I’ve written about before, my firm is working on a system we call the Demand Estimator, which makes it easy for management teams to overlay information — both internal and external data — onto a map. This enables analysis of key dimensions of performance.
When I was a professor at Harvard Business School, my degree was in management information systems and we often looked at how managerial control systems focused the effort of the organization, and helped leaders keep the many folks inside an organization focused on the right things, day in and day out. One of the great challenges in any field salesforce is to make sure that they are always turning their attention to the customers and markets that have the most potential. Another issue is the evaluation of salespeople. A key question you want to answer is: is my salesperson strong, or are they simply in a very good market? For property casualty insurance companies this is often a difficult question to answer. The graphic below shows a big section of Iowa and a little of the surrounding states, depicting potential demand in the market by darker colors. We gathered this information from external sources and matched it down to localities by state. This “layer” depicts the market potential. The next layer adds the performance of the agencies — shown with different-colored markers:
With this graphic, we can see that there are “good agencies” in “bad markets” and vice versa. This is vital information for sales management to know when they are allocating resources to train and build up agencies.
Where is all this going in the future? I believe that we will continue to get more and larger high resolution screens and projectors to display data. The average American household has increased its “screen-estate” significantly in the past few years with bigger, HD televisions and computer monitors. The same is becoming true of companies — and this will help to set the stage for more visualization.
The quality of cheap mapping tools and the availability of vast quantities of free or inexpensive data is growing. The planet is becoming “smart” in the sense that we can track, monitor and see much more of both the built and the natural environment.
The challenge is that if management teams do not consciously build in great visualizations, their organizations will waste an inordinate amount of time sifting through the river of bits, and not get the effective insights they need. Perhaps most perniciously, people will each be looking at their own part of the puzzle, never getting to the shared understanding that allows teams to take the right action in a tight time-frame.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Is there a simple map or maps of information that could make my life easier?
- Do we have the ability to take the myriad data and synthesize it into these new forms?
- How much time does the organization waste arguing about the facts instead of deepening understanding or crafting solutions?
The Brain, an iMindMap (via charmainezoe)