It’s Not All About the Numbers

Author: Dr. Julio Rivera

Published Date: 5/31/2020

Categories: School of Business Blog

santa venn diagram
Santa Diagram
Data visualizations are not all about the numbers.  Some of the most interesting visualizations are not number driven but are idea driven.  When I am asked to work for a client, I the first part of the conversation usually includes the request to “do analysis.”  Often there is little more than that two-word phrase as part of the original request and conversation.  I always press to know a little more and to get my client to talk about their problem.  These discussions lead me and the client to a set of ideas that we begin to sketch out.  The sketches are not necessarily data driven, but they build the pictures of the problem and the data and the analysis follows those original thoughts. 
Those sketches are important for thinking and building conversation.  Some of the simplest sketches I use are Venn diagrams.  These are often both simple and sometimes fun.  The Santa Venn made the rounds on the internet a few years ago.  I have used it in class several times and it has always provoked laughter and served an icebreaker for discussion.  The diagram works on a base line level to make us laugh.  On a deeper level it provokes a little uneasiness in us about a society where we are almost continually being monitored.  So many of our daily affairs such as shopping, communicating with friends, and travel are recorded by the electronic devices we carry.  We hope that the keepers and interceptors of the data adopt the philosophy espoused by IPUMS “use for good—never for evil” but we fear it could be like the Spanish Inquisition.  Good diagrams do this kind of work at multiple levels.  They tell us the big message and supply smaller ones as well.
song visualization
Nathan Yau, FlowingData, 2020
Illustrating ideas takes some practice but you can build experience by diagraming simple things.  One of my favorite visualization authors is Nathan Yau who writes the Flowing Data blog.  I’ve been a fan of his work for over ten years and Nathan has great skill in data analysis, but is focused on the big ideas of data visualization.  I enjoy his non-quantitative work as much as his quantitative work because he gets at the ideas.  One of his best pieces of work happened recently as he wanted to provide diagrams of hope for these troubled times.  By taking classic works and turning them into simple illustrations, he was able to carry the power of the original work in a highly simplified form.  For him it was a return to some of his early blog posts when he did the same thing with movies and hit songs.  It was reminiscent of his illustrations of moves and song lyrics

So many of the discussions of data analysis are focused on the numbers. I certainly fit that description as do many of the people I work with. It is good to remember that not all visual ideas portray numbers.


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