Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Too Much Information, Too Little Enlightenment

How many web pages are there out on the vast expanse of the Internet? There are tens of millions of blogs, hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of commercial sites, uncounted numbers of sites set up by governments at all levels to inform, serve (and confuse) citizens, and a vast, unknowably large number of sites that are just ... well ... there.

When you want to find something on the Internet, chances are you use Google or Yahoo or another search engine which, depending on the accuracy and specificity of your query, may bring back many hundreds of hits, more than you could ever realistically visit and plumb for what you want to know.

How do you sort out the digital wheat from the digital chaff? How do you make sense of all that information and present it in a form you can understand and - most of all - use?

This question was the subject of an interesting article by Kim Hart in yesterday's Washington Post: The Next Frontier: Decoding the Internet's Raw Data. Ms Hart briefly describes how various users might put to use the vast amount of data that's available, and notes that, "The problem is figuring out how to organize and display the data in a useful and informative way, instead of forcing people to sift through heaps of mind-numbing spreadsheets. When are bar graphs and pie charts enough to break down a set of numbers? What is the best way to display flu outbreaks, cellphone call logs or senators' voting records?"

Good questions. It's a good thing someone has already thought about it.

One of my recommended links will take you to the website of Dr Edward Tufte, beyond all doubt one of the most fascinating places on the Internet. Dr Tufte is one of the world's leading experts on the presentation of data, and his books (I own them all) are filled with glorious and fascinating insights into how we can present data of all types in ways that will provide not just information, but clarity and understanding. My daughter and I took his one-day seminar on "Presenting Data and Information" a few years ago, and it was one of the most interesting and valuable investments of eight hours I've ever made.

The volume of data that's available to us from all sources grows every day by an astronomical amount, and - literally - overwhelms our ability to absorb and process it. Ms Hart asks whether our beloved and traditional pie charts and bar graphs are enough when the amount and range of data to be collated and analyzed is so vast, but it's Dr Tufte who has taken the question on and worked to develop newer, better ways to present not just data, but information.

Dr Tufte is also the sworn enemy of Microsoft's PowerPoint graphics program - the bane of those of us in government and industry who endure endless hours of slow torture in the form of endless PowerPoint presentations delivered in warm, dark, stuffy rooms in a monotonous drone. His short book The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint is a devastating indictment of how we sacrifice understanding to format by slavishly allowing PowerPoint to dictate how we shape our presentation of data, and how that presentation limits and skews understanding.

And if you really want to see what PowerPoint can do, check this out: Peter Norvig's brilliant imagining of how Abraham Lincoln would have delivered the Gettysburg Address if he'd had the "benefit" of PowerPoint. If you don't have tears in your eyes from laughing after you've seen this, call the coroner to come and pick you up.

The effective presentation of data is a complex and utterly fascinating topic. Dr Tufte has provided some brilliant ideas, and the "Ask E.T." bulletin board on his website is a great place to read the problems others have encountered, and Dr Tufte's advice.

Check it out. You may never have to present a synthesis of complex data yourself, but you need to make sense of bewildering data every day ... just think of how it numbs your mind to understand the complexity of the economic meltdown, or the intricacies of health care reform.

Don't you wish someone could deliver a clear, concise explanation of those and other topics?

We need more Edward Tuftes. Start by checking out the one we have. It'll open your eyes.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



Leslie David said...

And we were just bemoaning the inadequate software apps we have to do our job because they've been sactioned as OK by the IT people, never mind that they're clunky, cumbersome and don't allow us to do the really cool stuff that's available. Just an interagency whine. :)

Mike said...

That site can keep you busy for quite awhile.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

There are more webpages now than there were a few seconds ago.

Amanda said...

Bilbo, one of the reasons why I like visiting your blog is because you always point us to some interesting sites (without us needing to sift through all that data!).

My internet time is so limited these days that I really need the short cuts you provide :)

Bilbo said...

Leslie - whine away...that's what I'm here for.

Mike - you don't know the half of it. That site cost me $16 this morning because I found the new book by Tufte's wife and ordered it.

Jean-Luc - too true!

Amanda - all part of the service!