The Increasing Importance of Data Visualization: An Interview with ZingChart's Thomas Powell

The Increasing Importance of Data Visualization: An Interview with ZingChart's Thomas Powell
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While it has been around for centuries, never before has visualizing data been more important. It's a key point in my previous The Visual Organization. Of course, many people understand the importance of visualizing information in innovative ways, and today I sat down with one. Thomas Powell, CEO of ZingChart. The company creates charting technology for websites and mobile applications used by corporations, nonprofits, and journalists worldwide.

Here are excerpts of from our conversation:

PS: Why did you get into visualization and start ZingChart?

TP: My web-development agency was analyzing the traffic of websites. We found that datasets got very big very quickly. When this happened, it was difficult to identify patterns without using visualizations. So we started ZingChart to support dataviz with larger datasets. Since then, we've seen rapid growth in visualizing as much data as possible to tell stories and present business results.

PS: As Napoléon Bonaparte once said, "A good sketch is better than a long speech." Do you agree?

TP: Yes. It is faster to recognize a result than to read a paragraph. When done well, visualizations explain complex ideas simply. Oftentimes charts tell the story much faster than a prose description or a table presentation. TLDR: dataviz appeals to our more gain/less work mindset in an attention-starved society.

PS: Will visualization become the main way we communicate? What emerging forms of visualization will change the landscape?

TP: Some stories are not easily presented with visual patterns. Imagine a pie chart with 1,000 slices. This isn't terribly consumable visually. Sure, more traditional bar charts and their ilk have their place, but they can be complex and hard for some to understand with large datasets. Because of this, infographics, network diagrams, treemaps, geographic maps, and other advanced forms of data visualization have become necessary and popular. Regardless of their forms, data visualizations must support the story. Charts must help the consumer get more out of the story.

PS: What role do you see visualization playing in contemporary storytelling?

TP: Whether you're a businessperson reporting quarterly sales to management or a journalist covering the rise of a particular political candidate, visualization is one of your tools. How you use the tool is key. Visualizations are fast and pretty. But charts are no cure for confusion, bias, and complexity.

PS: Can you share a specific example?

TP: Think about visualizations for the primary elections. An election choropleth map is a common way to show a candidate's momentum or winners and losers. You've seen them here on Huffington Post. However, these maps can sometimes present a confusing picture because of state sizes, shapes, and colors. For example, if a map is mostly red, you'll assume the Republicans had a tremendous victory. If it looks 50/50, you'll assume it was a close race, but the Democrats may have won by a large margin. These maps are accidentally deceptive. A small "blue" Massachusetts is more powerful than a big "red" Wyoming in terms of electoral power. You need additional controls on the map or additional data to avoid confusion, bias, and complexity.

Other people have talked about this, and our own blog contains examples of new types of election maps. But I doubt you'll see these alternatives on TV anytime soon. They're not especially visually appealing, even if they are more accurate. They show a twisted, "purple" America, which may not get as good ratings.

PS: Do you have advice for readers to be more aware of these accidental confusions, biases, or complexities?

TP: Treat visualization with the same skepticism that you do prose. Understand where the data comes from. Pay attention to scales and sampling to gauge trustworthiness.

There are plenty of sources that take different approaches to developing an eye for this, from serious to cheeky. At ZingChart, we help people build visualizations. In the spirit of helping, we built an election map tool to put people on the other side of visualization and let them make their own maps:

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