Thursday, June 03, 2010

Pitting ourselves against the graphing greats

I once heard an interview with a top executive and he was asked if he was any good? He replied 'Well I have made all the mistakes, so yes I am very good'.

This is a bit like how I feel about creating graphs and charts for media analysis reports, apart from the fact that I could be a whole lot better at it!

With the introduction of many online monitoring/evaluation tools like Radian 6 and Brandwatch and their associated charting abilities, you could almost believe that the need to create graphs and charts has become obsolete. I would argue to the contrary. If you are going to convey a story which uses data you are bound to consider the addition of a chart or graph. Proprietary software will generate graphs and they are often flexible and can be dropped into other documents. Alternatively you could put together your own charts and Microsoft Excel allows you to relatively easily create some quite impressive results. And then there are couple of other programs which take things to another level and even allow animations.

It would appear that the boundaries have almost disappeared; any combination of colours, textures, chart styles; only limited by a users imagination. The massive range of options however has its drawbacks. It was why I was experimenting with Google Motion Charts (and its unerring ability to simply convey the impact of 5 variables) that I realised that it is the data that matters, not the coat it wears. Sure, that's the point of this post, to select the right representation. But you have to start with the data; and that means starting with the story. Sometimes the story will come as you look at the data; other times you have a hypothesis which you try prove using the data.

The presentation is about taking the data and telling the story. A great graphical presentation will do so much more. Excellence in this area I believe is Hans Rosling's Gapminder and this video from TED. Its a few years old now but the it has so stood the test of time - an outstanding use of animated graphing to convey a story.

In later postings I will consider in greater detail how you can create charts and graphs and some of the pitfalls.
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